MADISON – A speedy high school quarterback recruited to play as a physical college outside linebacker, Zack Baun knew when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin that he was – in his own words – a softy.
His coming-of-age moment emphasized the growth that he needed to make to hold his own against 315-pound linemen.
“I was playing on scout team as an inside linebacker and Micah Kapoi wrapped around on a pull (block),” Baun said. “I didn’t know what I was doing and just got rocked, bloody nose and everything.”
Two years later and Baun, and his fully-healed nose, is a projected starter at outside linebacker, arguably the biggest question mark on Wisconsin’s roster heading into the fall. That reason is due to depth. While the Badgers will need to replace personnel at cornerback, safety, receiver, left tackle and other spots, Wisconsin is fortunate to have reserves who saw a considerable amount of time on the field last season.
That’s not the case at outside linebacker last season, as Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hurries. Those two were a big part of the reason why the Badgers were one of top defenses in the country in yards, points per game and rushing yards allowed.
“Those two set the standard,” Baun said.
They also set the wheels in motion for Wisconsin’s new combo to start growing together.
Thanks to Biegel and Watt playing together extensively in games and practice, Baun and senior Garret Dooley developed a strong partnership in individual drills and on the second-team defense by always being paired together. They complement each other well, Dooley with his strength playing the boundary/strong side of the field and Baun with his speed playing the field/weak side.
“(Outside linebacker coach Tim Tibesar) does a good job of always make sure there is a standard in our room, whether that is academically or on the field,” Baun said. “The standard is to reach your fullest potential and do the best you can personally. Even though I am a redshirt sophomore, I feel like I am older guy now with all the new guys and the younger guys.”
Baun made 15 tackles a season ago working mostly on special teams, but he was able to rotate in with the defense against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, the latter two games when Biegel was out recovering from foot surgery.
The limited work on defense was tenfold more valuable than anything he did on special teams.
“The Ohio State game was crazy and was honor to be a part of something like that,” Baun said. “Getting in the game was good for me to get rid of those nerves that I had.”
Halfway through spring practice, Baun said the amount of times he has been put on his rear has decreased dramatically with his ability to diagnosis an upcoming play based on his pre-snap reads. Using what he sees to narrow the playbook down to “a handful of plays,” Baun has made strides in his run defense and shedding of blocks.
“It’s crazy to think that two-and-a-half years ago I was playing quarterback and never playing defense,” Baun said. “I never had to use my hands to shed off a block, never even seeing a 300-pound guy. Now dealing with them every day, I feel like I am able to see through the block and able to play the ball more than the block.”
While Baun and Dooley have taken the majority of the first-team reps, the group behind them has been a smattering of youth with senior Leon Jacobs working the rust off at the position, redshirt freshman Christian Bell making substantial strides and first-year players Izayah Green-May and Andrew Van Ginkel getting their feet wet.
It may seem daunting to think Wisconsin can replace two players who will likely be selected in the upcoming N.F.L. draft. Baun is ready for that challenge.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the guys and have the talent to step up and replace those guys,” he said. “We are always refilling and rebooting.”