Sanders, Watkins ‘dead even' for starting spot

Junior linebackers are in competition for weakside position; Cribbs, Zalewski solid in other two spots

As fall camp heads into its final week, junior will linebackers Dontez Sanders and LaMarr Watkins are knotted in one of the tightest battles of fall camp. Watkins entered practice as the starter at weakside after a strong spring practice season. Watkins has had a decent fall camp but has been caught on the depth chart by Sanders, whose energy and enthusiasm is one of the most consistent aspects of any fall camp practice.

"I really see them as dead even," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bret Bielema said.

Watkins is the most experienced linebacker the Badgers have returning this season, with eight career starts, including two last season, all at strongside linebacker. He converted to the will position in spring. Sanders switched to will from strong safety last spring. He has played primarily on special teams in his career, recording 19 tackles in two seasons.

Watkins is the more technically sound of the two, but Sanders makes up for it with his aggressive, fly-to-ball attitude. He has taken the bulk of snaps with the first-team defense since Wednesday, a day when he returned an interception for a touchdown in the morning and afternoon sessions.

"Obviously, ‘Tez' had a hot couple days where he did some things but he'll forget to do a thing now and then again," Bielema said. "So, it's not there yet but both of them just made gigantic strides from where they were in the spring and where they are at right now."

Watkins could conceivably play all three linebacker positions. He spent the first two years of his career on the strongside and took some reps with the first team at mike this week.

"The one thing that he can do is he's smart enough," Bielema said. "He understands the game of football. What I want to do is give him a home so he can continue to improve on the specific skill but he's got the versatility to do a lot of different things."

"The biggest thing is we want to get our three best linebackers on the field and whoever they are we've got to get them there," he said. "Those two guys, both of them, LaMarr and ‘Tez', are playing good football and both of them can see action."

Despite Watkins' moonlighting at middle linebacker, Reggie Cribbs looks secure as the starter at that position. The Badgers, though, are still looking for depth at mike, where true freshmen Mike Newkirk and Andy Crooks are backing up Cribbs.

Newkirk has spent fall camp adjusting to mike after playing defensive end in high school while Crooks switched from sam to mike Friday morning.

"Watching ‘Crooksy' on film and seeing how versatile he is, I saw that he kind of ideally looked like a mike type," Bielema said. "He looks like he has the ability to kind of be in the middle, move some things around and he's got natural leadership skills."

Goode expected to return

Prior to suffering a knee injury in spring, Wisconsin's starting mike linebacker was Elliot Goode, who is still working to get back to full strength. Goode has taken part in some position drills and has suited up from time to time but has not taken part in full contact work.

"Elliot, he's still pushing things very, very fast," Bielema said. "He was out there faster than we thought he was going to be, has done a good job. I think the one thing that Elliot wants to do is give this thing a go and figure out exactly how he can get it done."

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