Andy Crooks, who beat out Reggie Cribbs late last season for the starting mike linebacker spot, opened spring with the first team but ended up splitting reps at first-team mike with Paul Joran, who had been the second-team sam linebacker. Walk-on redshirt freshman Josh Neal also saw time with the first team at mike, but mostly took reps with the second unit, rotating with Joran and Crooks.
Cribbs did not participate in spring practices, reportedly due to academic issues. His return to the team in the fall is uncertain.
Casey Hogan converted from safety to linebacker and emerged as the No. 2 sam linebacker and a potential first-team nickel linebacker.
Starting will linebacker Dontez Sanders missed all of spring due to an injury. LaMarr Watkins took most of the first-team reps in Sanders' absence. Jammar Carne was the second-team will linebacker this spring and will head to fall as the third team option once Sanders returns.
Redshirt freshman Nick Sutton was enjoying a strong spring before a neck injury sidelined him. His return to football this fall or further in the future is uncertain. He had been playing sam and will linebacker.
Walk-on Ben Landgraf worked in with the second team at both sam and will linebacker. He heads to the summer as the No. 3 sam and No. 4 will.
Spring MVP — Mark Zalewski. Along with defensive end Jamal Cooper and cornerback Brett Bell (if the latter is healthy this fall), Zalewski will be counted on to be a consistent playmaker this season. He was a flat-out star this spring.
Zalewski is an exceptionally athletic, physical linebacker. He was a punishing run stuffer and he was even better on the blitz. Zalewski may challenge Cooper for the mantle of the Badgers' best pass rusher this season. He also showed marked improvement in pass coverage, prompting UW to slide him over to mike linebacker in the 3-3-5 nickel set.
Far and away the Badgers' most trusted linebacker, Zalewski is expected to be a leader this fall.
Springing ahead — Casey Hogan went from after thought at safety to spring practice star. A fourth-string free safety last season, Hogan was the second most impressive linebacker this spring, following Zalewski. The walk-on made plays all over the field, particularly in the passing game. He was the Badgers' best coverage linebacker and he was also a strong pass rusher off the edge. And despite his lanky frame, Hogan was sturdy in the running game. What truly set him apart, though, was his determination. No player at any defensive position made more hustle plays than Hogan, who was often seen chasing down a ball carrier in backside pursuit.
Andy Crooks' tough spring left an opening for Paul Joran and the junior made the most of it, enjoying a fairly good practice season. Joran is a decent athlete who was fairly physical between the tackles.
Josh Neal flashed good potential at the mike position. He may be short (5-foot-10) for the position, but he is a sound tackler and a fiercely aggressive player who looks set to command playing time in the years to come.
Though overshadowed by Hogan's sparkling performances, Landgraf was another walk-on who showed that he is a serviceable player. Though he is a long shot to ever see significant playing time at linebacker, Landgraf could be helpful on special teams. He is another linebacker who did a good job blitzing off the edge.
Pressing questions — Will Andy Crooks bounce back from a disappointing spring? The Badgers need Crooks to be a tackling machine at the mike position and his confidence looked shot when he lost command of a first-team spot. Defensive coordinator and co-linebackers coach Bret Bielema was trying to send a message to Crooks that he needed to pick up his play. Whether or not that got through will be an open question until August and September.
How comfortable are the Badgers with their two-deep? UW had an obscene number of linebackers in spring practices, relative to other positions, but the Badgers' depth here still looks like a major concern. An injury to Zalewski would be devastating.
The Badgers will certainly blitz more this season so platooning the linebackers around Zalewski is a possibility, particularly with some high profile freshmen joining the team this fall.
Starting spots at mike and will look up for grabs, though Dontez Sanders was sorely missed this spring (see next section).
Looking ahead — In interviews this spring, one of the first defensive players to be mentioned as an expected leader this season was Dontez Sanders. A demonstratively boisterous player, Sanders can take quite a bit of credit for the defense's take-no-prisoners attitude and in-your-face style last season. A bit of that swagger was missing with him out of the lineup this spring; when Sanders rallied the defense from the sidelines as he watched in street clothes, his defensive teammates often responded with the bravado they displayed in fall camp last year and through much of last season.
The Badgers also made fewer plays from the will position with Sanders out of the lineup, but he will have a competition on his hands to re-secure the starting spot. Watkins is more technically sound, though Sanders is more physical, probably more athletic, and he makes more plays. Expect a healthy Sanders to reclaim his starting spot while Watkins, who is a good coverage linebacker, sees playing time in the nickel.
This defense looks best on paper with a rejuvenated Crooks in the middle, but if he cannot command the mike spot in the fall, Joran could start, or Zalewski could slide to mike, opening a spot for Hogan, Joran or a freshman at sam.
Jammar Crane will likely spend this season focusing on special teams, but he displayed a complete skill package this spring. He is sudden off the edge, fairly physical and strong in coverage. He will be a top reserve this fall with a shot at starting in 2006.
Some of the most highly regarded prospects in the class of 2005 are linebackers led by Travis Beckum, who is expected to play sam, and will ‘backer Elijah Hodge. O'Brien Schofield and DeAndre Levy will also play linebacker, as could Jonathan Casillas and Jarmal Ruffin. All six will have an opportunity to compete for spots "in the depth" during fall camp.