Frosh linebackers ‘in the mix'

Wisconsin brings in six freshmen linebackers this season; three were singled out during Big Ten media days

CHICAGO—Freshman Mike Newkirk is changing positions before he even begins to play.

Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said Wednesday that Newkirk, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound freshman from Ladysmith, Wis., who was recruited to play defensive end, will begin his Badger career as a mike linebacker.

Wisconsin has a number of question marks at the linebacker positions, where the team must replace Alex Lewis and Jeff Mack. In their place, sophomore Reggie Cribbs and junior LaMarr Watkins stood out during spring workouts and have the inside track at starting at the mike and will positions, respectively.

Mark Zalewski will begin the fall as the starting sam linebacker but has a history of injury problems.

There are a number of additional, talented options for the three spots, but all are young and inexperienced.

"They are question marks," Alvarez said during the Big Ten's annual football convention, "but I think we have answers. I really do."

As a result, Newkirk and fellow incoming freshmen Jammar Crane (will linebacker) and Andy Crooks (sam) will have an opportunity to crack the depth chart this fall.

"I think Crooks is an impressive-looking kid, he may be as impressive a freshman kid walking in as we've had," Alvarez said. "He's really bulked up. I know the other guys are impressed with the way he moves and what he can do.

"(Newkirk) moves well enough and we know how tough he is. Crane, he's not big, but he can run. I think those three guys can get us a little help in depth.

"We'll let those guys get in the mix."

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin's new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, also feels that the freshmen trio can step in and perform.

"I think a lot of those kids are going to come in and we're going to see who can play some football and figure it out after that," he said recently.

In addition to Crooks, Newkirk and Crane, Wisconsin brings in three additional freshmen linebackers: Josh Neal, Nick Sutton and Joe Walker.

The bevy of freshmen linebackers, in addition to myriad young players already competing for the three spots, made it somewhat surprising that Newkirk would be moved to linebacker.

Wisconsin, though, has a strong core of veterans along the defensive line and also brings in three freshmen at those positions. And above all, Alvarez noted, Newkirk is a football player and athlete. He was an all-state defensive end at Ladysmith (Wis.) High School and was the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's offensive player of the year as a fullback last year. He also returned punts at Ladysmith and was a two-time state champion heavyweight wrestler and a state champion in the shot put.

"I just want to get him a chance to get on the field," Alvarez said. "I think he would have an opportunity to get a look there. I think there's no reason why he's a guy that couldn't be on special teams right away.

"We'll give him a look. We can always put his hand down and he can rush the passer."

Crane is envisioned as an Alex Lewis-type player, though with less bulk (Crane weighs about 200 pounds). An active, athletic player, he could be used in blitz packages off the edge and could end up on special teams this season.

Crooks was originally recruited as a tight end, but that plan changed before signing day last February. He is up to 245 pounds and is among the freshmen that have impressed in the weight room.

"The feedback from our older guys, they're very impressed with the freshmen," Alvarez said. "I think they came in, they fit in right away, they're very impressed with them. You don't notice them in the workouts, workouts that our guys have been doing for years and years and they can walk right in and keep up with them and keep up with the pace and do it."

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