With a veteran defensive line and secondary, Wisconsin expected to boast an improved defense this season. The question was the linebackers, where three new starters stepped in this season.
"Everyone was questioning all of the linebackers and how we were going to be the weak point of the defense," sophomore Mark Zalewski said. "I think our goal was just to try and prove everyone wrong…we don't have that much experience so we just want to come out and show people what we're all about."
On and off the field, Zalewski is the quieter counterbalance to Dontez Sanders and Reggie Cribbs. But different personalities aside, they coalesce into one unit come game time. With only two games crossed off the 2004 schedule, this young linebacker corps has proved to almost be a fortuitous match.
"When you step on the field we all work well together," Zalewski said. "We've been working together for a while now through camp and everything so I mean I think we really communicated well. Personality doesn't really matter on the field."
Even though he prefers not to talk about it, Zalewski has been getting the most praise of the linebackers over the first two games. After spending last season as a backup middle linebacker—and starting once in the nickel—Zalewski switched over to the sam linebacker and has been getting positive feedback ever since. Head coach Barry Alvarez has singled out Zalewski's good play and defensive coordinator Bret Bielema has been impressed with Zalewski's instincts and ability to see things before they happen.
Sanders is probably the next most frequently talked about linebacker, however, due to his aggressiveness and enthusiasm for the game.
"The one thing is he has a lot of instincts and he finds himself around the football a lot," Bielema said. "He does have that ability to make some things happen even when something's not there and I think those are the things that are going to come out."
As a former defensive back and wide receiver, Sanders has been able to exploit opposing offenses on a number of occasions, with 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss, thus far this season. Sanders' best plays, however, have not counted: he had a 50-yard fumble recovery return for touchback reverse upon review against UCF. Against UNLV Sanders' interception did not count due to a penalty.
One of the biggest surprises out of the linebackers though may be Reggie Cribbs, whose 14 tackles, 10 of them solo, are leading the Badgers after two games. Cribbs locked down the mike spot in spring workouts and was continuously impressive with his energy. Until two weeks ago, however, he still had not played a snap of college football.
Though all three have gotten a good start to their first season together, the Badgers as well as the linebackers have yet to face an intimidating offense. Bielema said there is much more work to be done before the Big Ten season comes along.
If Bielema had to rate his three linebackers, he would place them in the respective order of Zalewski, Sanders and Cribbs but Bielema knows that this might be an unfair rating due to the variance in each position.
"But of all my years coaching linebacker, that's kind of par for the course," Bielema said about his rating of the linebackers. "The sam usually has the easiest grades because he's a one-dimensional player and usually doesn't have to see the whole field. Mike has to see everything and the will is in the middle sometimes and a lot of the time he's an edge player as well so you just naturally have lower grades in the middle and I think the grades reflect football in general. They're going to get higher."
While the Badgers hope their grades get better, it may take some time for this group to reach the potential of last year's group that contained Jeff Mack and the Detroit Lions' Alex Lewis. Bielema has told his current linebackers not to be concerned with the past but Sanders said that with time this group could reach the same status.
"They were good because they had been playing linebacker for a long time; this is our first time playing together as a group and I feel that after a while we will be able to get where Alex and Jeff was," Sanders said.
Linebackers prove a point
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