A few new faces

On a defense full of veterans, linebackers Reggie Cribbs, Dontez Sanders and Mark Zalewski and strong safety Johnny White stand out in the crowd

Wisconsin has plenty of well versed veterans on defense this year. Starting defensive ends Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James have 25 starts between them; tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson, meanwhile, have 54.

There is even greater experience in the secondary. Corner Bret Bell has only started three games, but has played in 27 and backups Chuckie Cowans and Levonne Rowan have 45 career games and 13 starts between them.

Free safety Jim Leonhard has started 27 straight games and played in 39. Cornerback Scott Starks has started 36 of his 39 career games.

With so much seasoning around, four defensive starters—linebackers Reggie Cribbs, Dontez Sanders and Mark Zalewski and strong safety Johnny White—stand out.

Three of the four will be making the first starts of their careers Saturday and all four will essentially play their positions for the first time at the collegiate level.

Only Zalewski has started previously: one game against Michigan State last year, when the Badgers implemented a 3-3-5 to counter the Spartans' spread.

Cribbs was a star middle linebacker in high school, but injuries kept him from seeing the field for a single snap his first two years on campus. Ironically, an knee injury to Elliot Goode in spring workouts opened the door for Cribbs, who was one of the Badgers' most productive assets in both spring and fall workouts.

White played only a few snaps last season, relinquishing a redshirt year he wish he could have back.

Dontez Sanders
Sanders is the aged veteran of the quartet, but he is completely new to his position. He has played in 25 games, but almost entirely on special teams. He began his UW career as a wide receiver, then moved to defensive back, with two days mixed in as a strongside linebacker. After spending last season at strong safety, Sanders is the Badgers' starting will, or weakside, linebacker. He beat out veteran LaMarr Watkins for the position in fall camp.

"I've been looking forward to (starting) for four years," Sanders said. "It's been a long time and now it feels like I'm ready, the energy, I can just play."

"It was going to be a matter of time," co-linebackers coach Brian Murphy said of Sanders' development. "He's a guy that loves football. He's always around the ball, always has great energy. I think for Dontez it was just a matter of playing the position."

For Cribbs and Zalewski it was just a matter of staying healthy.

Cribbs played his senior year of high school football on an badly injured leg but still earned some All-American honors. Soon after arriving in Madison, he learned he had a stress fracture in his shin that would require surgery to heal. He redshirted, missed nearly a year of practice, and then spent all of last year recuperating and trying to get back into the flow.

"You know, you talk about rhythm and you talk about finding your groove… He comes in, has his leg repaired and essentially sits out for an entire year," Murphy said. "Then not only do you have to catch up with the new scheme but you have to catch up with the speed of the game when you are not 100 percent… He's making your typical progression right now."

Cribbs has found a groove at mike linebacker, where he is responsible for cleaning up the mess in between the tackles and using his tenacity on blitz packages.

"I blitzed a lot in high school also," Cribbs said. "I love blitzing. Any chance to hit the quarterback is a plus."

Mark Zalewski
Zalewski pulled a hamstring in his final high school track meet, then did it twice his true freshman year. Had he stayed healthy, Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said, Zalewski would have played immediately. He pulled it yet again in the Michigan State game last season and missed the regular season finale against Iowa. He also broke his hand during spring workouts.

"I'm doing everything I can after practice and before practice. Now I know…my hamstrings are bad and I just have to really take care of them," Zalewski said.

For the first time in his UW career, Zalewski took part in an entire fall training camp, which helped him transition from middle linebacker to the strongside, where he thrived this fall.

"Just being healthy and getting the reps and not getting any time off has really helped me," Zalewski said.

"Mark's an extremely talented young man. He's athletic, he's strong, he's fast. He's strong at the point of attack," Murphy said. "When you get all those reps and you are able to practice on a consistent basis, only good things are going to happen. That's what's happening to Mark."

White, an extremely aggressive player and big-time hitter, emerged in fall camp and won the starting strong safety job.

Johnny White
White said he started getting nervous as soon as he earned a spot on the first team and he does not expect them to dissipate completely until the game kicks off Saturday.

"I was running with the twos before, so I was used to fitting with them," White explained. "Like the line would be in certain areas. With the ones its different. I thought I was messing up at first and I just had to get used to it."

White also felt a little intimidated at first joining a veteran secondary, but now feels more secure knowing that Starks and Leonhard will help make sure he has the right pre-snap reads.

"It's great having older guys there, especially Jimmy and Sparky," White said. "They help you out. When I get my head down, they'll help me up too.

"It is good that this year that I have them and one day I'll be the older guy. They are good people to look up to."

Cribbs and co. know with so many veterans in the front and back lines, and high expectations for the 2004 season, all eyes are on the linebacking corps this year. It is a welcome challenge.

"With our seniors in the front line and seniors at safety, that makes it very easy for us," Cribbs said. "They kind of lead us. We just have to show that we can keep up with them. If we can keep up with them we are going to be great."

"We are just going to go out there and get after it," Zalewski said. "To me it doesn't really matter what anyone else is saying about us. We just have to do it ourselves."

"Everybody says if the linebackers are good the defense will be good," Cribbs said. "I'm just excited for our defense to actually get out there and wreck some havoc. I'm really excited about that and seeing what we can do."

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