Wisconsin's defense will undoubtedly have a different appearance in the fall with new coordinator Bret Bielema adding his influence to the mix. The change that has jumped out through two days of spring practice is the shifting around of linebackers to new positions with new responsibilities.
LaMarr Watkins, a junior, started eight games at drop linebacker the past two seasons. Sophomore Mark Zalewski finished last year as the heir apparent to Jeff Mack at mike linebacker, while Elliot Goode was poised to take over for Alex Lewis at eagle.
This trio does indeed make up Wisconsin's starting linebacker core right now, but each is playing a new position. Zalewski has shifted to a strongside position, what used to be drop but is now called the Sam linebacker. Goode has shifted from the weakside eagle position to a the middle linebacker, or Mike, spot and Watkins has moved from drop to Will, or weakside, linebacker.
The move appears to suit Watkins well. Not exactly the bulkiest player on the field, he is officially listed at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds on the spring roster. Rather than playing up on the line of scrimmage and doing battle with tight ends and linemen, Watkins now plays well off the line and typically just inside the tackle. At Will ‘backer, Watkins has the freedom to essentially flow to the ball and the scheme calls for the weakside defensive end to make sure he keeps space clean for the Will linebacker to see the field and pursue the play.
"A lot of tight ends in this league and on our team are like tackles," Bielema said. "You want to get a bigger body on them, so they can use their hands, use their strength. The little guys, we want to protect a little bit; play them in space but also keep the big guys off of them."
That should make for a quick transition for Watkins, whose athleticism has always been his greatest asset. The transition may be a little more difficult for Zalewski, who said he had played middle linebacker his entire career, including high school, up until this point.
"Playing up on the line, all the reads are quicker," Zalewski said. "(There are) different keys. It's almost a whole different world.
"I'm just trying to figure it out right now. It is all about using your hands and being physical and blowing stuff up."
"I think ‘Zew' has exceptional toughness. Bielema said. "I think he's a tough guy. He runs pretty well."
"That (Sam) position is unique: he's got to play over a tight end but also play in space a little bit," Bielema added, explaining the new positions. "Mike, he is always in the middle, he is in the core of the formation. He doesn't have to play in space a lot. Will, he's got to play off the ball but we can kind of get away with an undersized guy there."
Wisconsin plans on having as many as three more practices before spring break and for Bielema this is an opportunity to continue becoming acquainted with the players on the field and what skills they possess.
"These first five days what we are going to do is basically assess everybody's abilities and then put the guys in the best position they have success," Bielema said.
The changes have also affected Wisconsin's reserves. Junior Dontez Sanders has switched from strong safety to Will linebacker and is backing up Watkins, in part because Kareem Timbers will miss spring practice with an injury. Senior T.J. Wielebski was at Will Friday but switched to Mike Saturday. Sophomore walk-on Steve Moore is now the third-team Will ‘backer.
James and Jones still expected to miss spring ball
Erasmus James was not at practice Saturday after watching drills and taking part in some warm-ups on Friday. Bielema stated Saturday that James and fellow senior defensive end Darius Jones will not, to his knowledge, participate in spring practice this year. James has not been available for comment since enduring a hip injury during fall camp last year.
Bielema acknowledged that it is difficult to get a feel for how the ends and linebackers will intermingle due to James' and Jones' absence, which leaves just two ends on the roster who have seen playing time – senior starter Jonathan Welsh and sophomore Joe Monty, who played sparingly last season. Bielema sees the lack of numbers as an opportunity to take a closer look at young players without digging into veterans' reps. The second team ends are currently redshirt freshman Jamal Cooper and sophomore Mark Gorman who split time between tackle and end last season.
"Monty, he's getting a lot of reps and its great for Jonathan Welsh, he's getting a lot of reps too," Bielema said. "Cooper is going to be a good player for us, he's a little light in the tail but he's going to be a good player for us.
"What it does is, it helps us build depth without taking reps away from our ones."
Cooper is also taking reps with the third-team defense along with redshirt freshman end Derek Yentz.
Sophomore strong safety Joe Stellmacher attended practice Friday and Saturday but out of uniform. He is not listed on the Badgers' spring depth chart and it is unclear whether he is expected to be healthy in time to practice this spring. A healthy Stellmacher would jump right into the mix for the starting strong safety spot along with Robert Brooks and Johnny White.
Note to readers: Wisconsin may or may not have practice Sunday afternoon, pending weather conditions. A youth soccer tournament is pushing the Badgers out of the McClain Center and, as of Saturday, the team had yet to decide whether or not to practice outdoors Sunday.