Zalewski comfortable as leader, mike ‘backer

Linebacker is Badgers' best player on defense, and their only junior class captain

Mark Zalewski is conspicuous among the University of Wisconsin football team's four captains. The other three —center Donovan Raiola, fullback Matt Bernstein and cornerback Brett Bell — are all fifth-year seniors. Zalewski, UW's starting mike linebacker, is a fourth-year junior.

"Three seniors who have been here an extra, played one more year than I did," Zalewski said. "But to be looked upon as a leader by your teammates, it feels great."

The Badgers voted on their captains on the last day of preseason camp.

"It was really incredible exciting," Zalewski said. "It's such a huge honor. I'm just so excited to be a leader on the defense and a leader on this team. I want to try to be a playmaker…

"We have so many leaders on this team… so many guys that could have been a captain… I was just excited that I was voted in by my team."

Zalewski does not appear to be a particularly vocal player, but he shows leadership in a number of ways.

"Zalewski is a guy that does what he's supposed to in the classroom," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "He's a guy that's dependable. Those were the things that [his teammates] see, and a guy that plays with a lot of confidence on the field."

"He's a personality in the locker room," Bell said. "He works hard every day; works hard in the weight room, works hard on the field, works hard in the classroom. He's just a good guy that people can come up to and lead by example."

Zalewski is proud of the way he has shown leadership.

"When I'm out on the field I like to get everyone real excited and try to get them pumped up," he said. "But also just in all the drills and everything I like to go 100 percent, try to do everything right. Hopefully like a lot of these freshmen that we have that will probably see some time in the field, they can see just my work ethic and all that and try to look up to me in that way."

Though his stellar play was somewhat lost in the shadows of the 2004 Badgers' senior-laden defense, Zalewski was one of UW's best players last year. And he may be the team's top defensive player this season.

Zalewski, who started every game at sam, or strongside, linebacker last season, moved to the middle linebacker spot in preseason camp and has looked even more disruptive in that role. After tying for the team lead with 11.5 tackles for loss in '04, he had two in UW's season-opening win over Bowling Green last week.

Two years ago Zalewski was a third-team middle linebacker under former defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. But he moved to the strongside in spring 2004 when Bret Bielema took over as defensive coordinator and co-linebackers coach.

"I actually don't really remember too much," Zalewski said of his former days playing in the middle. "I kind of put that behind me. That was a whole different defensive scheme. I'm not really quite sure — I don't view it as being very similar at all but I wasn't getting as many reps as I have now."

As a sam linebacker, a position that he could still play this season, depending on the composition of the rest of UW's linebacker corps, Zalewski would typically line up over the tight end. His keys are considerably different in the middle.

"Well usually I was just keying on the tight end, being at the strong spot," he said. "The tight ends and then the backs. Now it's more of reading the interior linemen to the backs. It took a while to get used to… because I never really paid attention to what like the guards or centers, or a lot of time with the tackle, how they blocked certain plays. Now, I have to pick that up first and then view the quarterback and the backs."

Zalewski would probably be successful at any of UW's linebacker positions. He is a physical player and he has the athletic ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.

"The thing that I'm impressed with... when we recruited him, he can really run, and he's maintained that," Alvarez said. "Even though he's gotten bigger, he has a good burst and he's really got a lot of quickness and flat-out speed. He has a lot of closing speed. And he's started to play with a lot of confidence. He's just learning that inside position. I think he'll continue to get better."

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