Fall Camp Guide: linebackers

Questions abound for unit in transition

Starter returning LaMarr Watkins, Jr., 6-1, 211 (8 career starts, 26 games played, 59 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 0 sacks, 1 interception).

More key returneesReggie Cribbs, So., 6-1, 225; Mark Zalewski, So., 6-2, 232 (12 games, 8 tackles); Elliot Goode, Jr., 6-2, 234, (26 games, 30 tackles).

Also in the mixDontez Sanders, Jr., 6-1, 208; Paul Joran, So., 6-3, 222; T.J. Wielebski, Sr., 6-1, 261; John Gillen, Jr., 6-4, 248; Victor Meckstroth, So., 6-1, 250.

Newcomers – Freshmen Mike Newkirk, 6-3, 240; Andy Crooks, 6-3, 240; Jammar Crane, 6-1, 195; Nick Sutton, 6-2, 215; Josh Neal, 5-10, 225; Ben Landgraf, 6-3, 220.

Key departures – Starters Alex Lewis and Jeff Mack and Kareem Timbers (split time with Watkins); reserve Kyle McCorison.

Additional departures - Chris Catalano, Adam Jelinek, Steve Moore, Dan Zess.

Top marks in 2003 tackles - Jeff Mack, 98; tackles for loss - Alex Lewis, 16.5; sacks - Lewis, 9; interceptions - McCorison, 1.

Top 2003 marks among returning players - tackles - Watkins, 18; TFL - Watkins and Goode, 0.5; sacks and interceptions - none.

Reasons to be excited – Reggie Cribbs is healthy and is coming off a very strong spring. He has good lateral range and has looked comfortable in new defensive coordinator Bret Bielema's blitz packages. LaMarr Watkins is poised for a breakout year after moving from strongside to weakside, where he is much more comfortable. The team brings in a trio of freshmen—Newkirk, Crooks and Crane—expected to compete right away.

Cause for trepidation – Watkins is the only player with considerable experience and the other two linebackers with experience (Zalewski and Goode) have battled the injury bug. While Newkirk, Crooks and Crane all look the part, it speaks volumes to the team's developed depth that three true freshmen could see action immediately. There are 14 linebackers working out in fall camp (Meckstroth wasn't invited but will join the team when classes start), but few are ready to play.

Camp questions – Can Wisconsin's linebackers cover? The unit has been porous in pass coverage in recent years and did not look much better in spring.

Will Goode return to full health and can Zalewski stay healthy? If not, true freshman Andy Crooks could start immediately (This is not a knock on Crooks. He very well could thrive in that role).

How quickly will the true freshmen be ready to play? Both physically and mentally making the jump from high school is tough to master. It is compounded in Newkirk's case as he makes the transition from defensive end.

How drastically will the linebackers' style of play shift under Bielema? The new defensive coordinator is expected to blitz more. The question is which linebackers will be successfully doing so. The guess here is that Cribbs will here his number called most frequently.

Player on the rise – Cribbs. He is not the biggest middle linebacker around, but he is physical enough and has enough lateral range to track down ball carriers.

Player on the spot – Zalewski. He has shown flashes of being a top-notch player but has not been able to keep himself on the field.

Forecast – Cribbs and Watkins will be fine. They will not be confused with All-Big Ten linebackers but they will have commendable seasons. Depth will continue to be a problem throughout the year and there will likely be quite a bit of transition behind and around those two starters.

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