As the season has progressed, senior Kyle McCorison and sophomore Elliot Goode have received significant, though somewhat sparing, playing time in reserve of Mack and Lewis. Until this week, redshirt freshman Mark Zalewski had barely cracked the lineup, playing in all 11 games but overwhelmingly receiving his opportunities on special teams.
Zalewski and Goode are considered the most likely replacements for seniors Mack and Lewis next season, making it all the more important that the young duo receives time on the field.
"I think it's always important to get playing time, I think it makes the transition to a starter much easier," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said.
"We need that game experience and as coaches we need to see them do it in a game situation," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kevin Cosgrove said. "Unfortunately there hasn't been a game where they could go in and play (for an extended period) because they have been so close."
Saturday, Zalewski received by far the most extensive playing time of his career, starting at outside linebacker in the 3-3-5 ‘silver' defensive package the Badgers used against Michigan State.
"Our plan was to play him right from the start, Zalewski started, and he held up well," Cosgrove said. "I told Barry he has been getting better every week. You watch him play, you watch him practice, his intensity in practice and the same with Elliot, so I felt good going into the game that they would perform."
Zalewski played throughout the game and recorded one tackle Saturday while Goode rotated in as he normally does and picked up three, for a season total of 15. Zalewski has six total tackles this season.
In his first career start, Zalewski's performance garnered respect.
"I thought he did some good things," Alvarez said. "I thought for playing as many snaps as he did for the first time, it was solid. A lot of things that we can correct and a lot of things that just by showing him in that film…just some very routine basic things and just learning how to protect himself from blockers and not giving up his legs. Those are things that you can teach and practice everyday but in the heat of the battle things change and so I thought he had a very solid performance."
Zalewski is currently listed No. 3 on the depth chart at middle linebacker, behind Mack and McCorison, while Goode is Lewis' primary backup. With a bevy of players returning along the defensive line and in the secondary for Wisconsin next season, linebacker could be the one question mark. Zalewski and Goode will compete with a cadre of linebackers with no experience at the positions and will be aiming to replace a pair of mainstays on the Badgers defense. If Zalewski and Goode develop into solid contributors, Wisconsin should have a very strong defense in 2004-05.
Mack, for one, believes the positions are in good hands.
"Sometimes when you know you may not get in, sometimes you kind of slack off a little bit, but there is no slack in those guys," Mack said. "They go hard every play and it is fitting for them to get some playing time, especially in big games like this.
"Zew plays hard and Zew plays to win all the time. That is something that we pride ourselves on as linebackers is always being ready. I think Zew, you guys are going to be surprised to see Zew next year and see how well he plays."