Fall camp wrap, linebackers

Unit in flux stays in flux, but looks stronger for the wear

Depth chart

News and notes: It was not surprising that the position undergoing the most transition and facing the biggest question marks experienced the most fluctuation during fall camp.

LaMarr Watkins, the Badgers' most experienced linebacker, was supplanted as the starting will linebacker by Dontez Sanders. Watkins will serve as Wisconsin's top reserve. He also played mike linebacker during fall camp.

Andy Crooks opened camp as the No. 2 sam and closed as the No. 2 mike. The Badgers tried to play true freshman Mike Newkirk at mike, but he was not comfortable at the position is now a third-team defensive end.

Paul Joran secured the No. 2 sam position.

Elliot Goode, who suffered a serious knee injury during spring workouts, practiced with the team but was very limited. He did not take part in any contact work. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez has said Goode might return for the third game of the season.

Fall MVP: Mark Zalewski. The former Wausau East star quietly had a very strong fall camp. Zalewski has adapted well to the sam position; he has the combination of strength and athleticism necessary to bang shoulders with tight ends up on the line of scrimmage and looks fluid playing in space. He is a very fundamentally sound player. Most importantly, he has stayed healthy. Joran improved significantly behind Zalewski, but ‘Zew' is vital to the Badgers' linebacking fortunes.

Player on the rise: Dontez Sanders. Even after a successful spring, Sanders looked destined to be a career special teams player. That changed in dramatic fashion this fall when Sanders' exuberant, aggressive play endeared him to the coaching staff. There was no more fired up player on the field at any given time. Sanders will still miss an assignment here or there but he made a lot of plays during fall camp. His energy, complete with cheers of his own design, is contagious.

Questions answered: The starters—Zalewski, Sanders and mike Reggie Cribbs—are secure, and the top reserves have been named. The unit looks better in pass coverage, but this is still a concern. The same can be said for the unit's depth, which is better than it looked in the spring, but is still open to inquiry.

The one thing Wisconsin's linebackers have a surplus of is speed. This unit can cover more ground than any corps in recent memory. They can also get after a quarterback. All three starters, plus top reserves Watkins and Joran, have looked very good as pass rushers. Crooks is developing quickly in this regard as well.

Questions remain: The biggest questions cannot be answered until the pads starting popping for real. Until then, this is still a very inexperienced unit that has to prove itself. How will it react when things go wrong? Can it play well against the run and the pass, in a variety of situations?

There are still some personnel questions. Watkins, Zalewski, Sanders and Cribbs have all played linebacker in the nickel defense and it remains to be seen which two will primarily serve those rolls. If Watkins remains a reserve in the base defense, it would make sense to have him play in the nickel.

Can Elliot Goode return early this season, as now expected, and will he be effective? If yes, the Badgers' depth at linebacker improves measurably.

Final note: Wisconsin's linebackers are not going to flirt with all-conference honors, but they are not going to be a sore spot either. This unit is still rough around the edges and lacks depth. An injury or two would be devastating. However, all of the players in the depth run well and have a knack for finding the ball, particularly Sanders and Cribbs. The linebackers are more simmer and sizzle than boom and bust. They are coming along and will make their share of highlight-reel plays this season.

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