Spring football wrap: linebackers

The conclusion of BadgerNation.com's position-by-position look at who thrived and what questions remain.

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News and notes – New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bret Bielema instilled new terminology for the strongside, middle and weakside linebackers: sam, mike and will. He also moved a number of players to new positions…. LaMarr Watkins spent the spring as the starting will linebacker…..Elliot Goode (mike) and Mark Zalewski (sam) opened spring as starters but suffered injuries early on….Reggie Cribbs and Brandon Kelly competed for Goode's position, with Cribbs asserting himself at the No. 1 spot….Paul Joran took over for Zalewski with the first defense with Adam Purcell and John Gillen sharing reps with the second defense….Dontez Sanders converted to will from strong safety and backed up Watkins throughout spring….Kareem Timbers, likely a will linebacker, missed all of spring after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason.


Spring MVP – Other players may have made more highlight-reel plays, but LaMarr Watkins had the best spring of any linebacker. Watkins was reborn at the will position, which far better suits his skills then the strongside drop linebacker position he had previously played. The most experienced linebacker in spring camp, Watkins took a very businesslike approach and was an extremely steady contributor.


Springing ahead – Aside from quarterback John Stocco, no Badger made more of an opportunity than Reggie Cribbs. After spending two seasons working his way back from a stress fracture in his leg that needed to be surgically repaired, Cribbs played well enough to be considered the team's No. 1 mike linebacker heading into fall camp. An athletic player, Cribbs can make plays sideline-to-sideline. He was very active, disrupting plays in the backfield and getting into the mix in pass coverage.


Dontez Sanders looked very comfortable at will linebacker, where his aggressiveness and ability to make the big hit were put on display often. A quality special teams player, Sanders' go-all-out-all-the-time mentality worked well this spring and he frequently made as many plays as anyone in a given practice, culminating with a high-tackle performance in the spring game. He is still rough around the edges, though, missing assignments and over-pursuing plays too often. Watkins is well ahead of him for the No. 1 spot, but Sanders established himself as a quality reserve.


Paul Joran stepped in for Mark Zalewski at sam and did the job. He does not fill the stat sheet often, but Joran did what was asked of him and proved capable.


Brandon Kelly, like Cribbs, was an excitable and highly active player who always drew attention during practices. He assumed the No. 1 mike spot for a few practices and though he could not hold off Cribbs, he showed in his first spring that he will be a quality player.


Walk-on Adam Purcell joined the team this spring and quickly made a move up the depth chart, competing with John Gillen for the No. 2 sam spot. Purcell should at least help Wisconsin on special teams in the fall.


On the mend – The exact extent of Goode's injury is unknown, but it appeared that he suffered a fairly severe knee injury. He is expected to return in the fall but in what shape remains to be seen.


Zalewski should be ready to go in the fall after injuring his lower arm in spring workouts. He dressed for a few practices late in the spring but did not take part in any contact work. If healthy, he would have a slight edge over Joran for the starting job at sam, though the latter has more or less an entire practice season's advantage. Moreover, Zalewski has been hampered by injuries in the past and his durability could be an issue.


Timbers is also expected to return healthy in the fall. If that is the case he will likely follow most of the former drop linebackers to will, where he could compete with Sanders for the No. 2 spot or Watkins for the starting role. Timbers could suffer to catch up after missing the first opportunity to work with Bielema's new system.


Final notes – The competitions within the depth next fall will likely mirror what took place this spring. Joran/Zalewski and Cribbs/Goode/Kelly will be wide-open battles. Barring a big leap from Sanders or Timbers, it is hard to see Watkins losing the will spot.


Wisconsin's biggest concern remains building depth at all three positions. Even with a full compliment of healthy linebackers, the Badgers would be searching for players to step up and command spots in the three-deep. As has been discussed previously, Wisconsin's incoming freshmen linebackers—Jammar Crane, Nick Sutton, Andy Crooks and Josh Neal—will have every opportunity to compete.

Spring football wrap

Part 1 - wide receivers

Part 2 - defensive ends

Part 3 - offensive linemen

Part 4 - special teams

Part 5 - quarterbacks

Part 6 - running backs

Part 7 - tight ends

Part 8 - safeties

Part 9 - cornerbacks

Part 10 - defensive tackles

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