News and Notes: Mark Zalewski, Wisconsin's best defensive player, opened camp as the strongside "sam" linebacker, but was moved to the middle "mike" linebacker about midway through. That cleared the way for LaMarr Watkins to step in as the strongside linebacker with the first team. This arrangement is expected to play out versus passing oriented teams. Against run oriented teams, Andy Crooks, who started five games at mike last year, will step into the middle, shifting Zalewski to the strong side… Dontez Sanders asserted himself at the first-team weakside "will" linebacker spot…. There was substantial juggling through the rest of the depth. But true freshman linebackers Travis Beckum (sam), DeAndre Levy (will) and Elijah Hodge (mike), along with redshirt freshman mike Josh Neal, emerged as the Badgers' next four linebackers… Look for Neal to help out in the middle against run-heavy teams and/or on run-specific downs… Hodge missed several practices due to injury but was still one of UW's most impressive true freshmen… After finishing the spring as the No. 2 sam linebacker, sophomore Casey Hogan slipped to the third team, along with walk-on Ben Landgraf, who can play sam or will… Redshirt freshman Jammar Crane really pushed for playing time early in camp, receiving significant reps with the first-team defense for a few practices, but his reps diminished as camp progressed and he looked like the No. 4 at will linebacker when camp concluded… Paul Joran (mike) and true freshman O'Brien Schofield (sam) round out the fourth team.
Fall MVP: Mark Zalewski. Whichever linebacker position he plays, he is UW's best. Zalewski is a very good run stuffer and he is solid in coverage. When he blitzes, he is one of the Badgers' best pass rushers. And he is not only the team's best defensive player, but its most consistent. Zalewski is a first-team all-conference caliber player, but he is likely to be overshadowed in a league stacked with linebackers. This is unfortunate. Zalewski is a treat to watch and he played even better at mike linebacker than he did at his customary sam spot.
Player on the rise: LaMarr Watkins. The senior did not even letter last season, after losing the competition at will linebacker to Sanders and then suffering a pair of injuries. He looked relegated to the second team at best this season, until he was moved back to the strongside, where he started eight games in his first two seasons at UW. Watkins was rejuvenated at sam and UW's linebacker corps looked much better with him in the lineup. Watkins is good in coverage and he adds more speed to the Badgers' defense. He could be better at shedding blocks and filling versus the run, but he can be a disruptive player on the edge. If he keeps playing as he did in camp, expect him to play more regularly than just versus passing teams.
Questions answered: Sanders missed the spring due to a shoulder injury, but he proved that he was completely healthy this fall. And he was supposed to have a battle on his hands for his starting spot, but he quickly established himself as UW's second best linebacker. Sanders was better against the run and good in coverage. He still has moments where his recognition or focus seems to lapse, but Sanders showed marked improvement this fall and should be a playmaker in UW's defense.
After making big leaps in the spring, Josh Neal and Casey Hogan played fine in the fall, but the talented true freshmen the Badgers brought in pushed them down the depth chart. Neal still looks poised to help as a situational run stuffer, and Hogan could help in the nickel defense. However, UW looks ready to push Levy, Hodge and Beckum into playing time early in their careers.
Questions remain: How much will Watkins remain in the lineup with Zalewski and Sanders? The tough thing for Watkins is that when UW plays really pass heavy spread teams, it will probably shift to nickel often. And in nickel, Zalewski and Sanders are the linebackers. But will Watkins get a shot at sam in the base defense against more balanced offenses? It is possible. Or the Badgers could turn to Crooks or Neal inside.
How much and in what capacity will Levy, Hodge and Beckum play? Levy and Hodge are ready to help at linebacker now and should at least prove helpful on special teams. Levy runs like a defensive back and he was mighty comfortable at will for a true freshman. Hodge is an older freshman (he turns 20 in December) and that maturity showed. Physically he is ready, and he has an uncommon feel for the position for a true freshman. Hodge looks like the future at mike linebacker. Beckum is a strong, athletic player with a bright future, but he looked out of sorts in space in his first fall camp. Still, there was quite a bit of improvement from beginning to end, when he started to make some plays during scrimmage sessions. Beckum was at his best rushing the passer, and this could be a situational role for him if he is to get on the field this year.
Final thoughts: Linebacker is less a question mark than it was before camp, but there are still reasons for trepidation here. Zalewski should be a star and the linebackers were pretty productive with Sanders and Watkins flanking him, but those two will have some problems against power running teams. Within the depth, the talent is high, but the experience level among the top flight reserves is very low, with the exception of Crooks, who may still prove to be a starter. Injuries will be tough to deal with, though the overall depth here looks much better than it did before camp.
It will be interesting to see how the young players shake out in the depth throughout the season, particularly at will, where either Levy or Crane will finish the year as Sanders' heir apparent. Crane is a sudden player of the edge, but he needs to clean up some technique issues, add size and become stronger against blocks. He came a long way from a year ago, though, and should still end up in the mix in the long run.