Spring preview: Linebackers

Veteran Mark Zalewski leads a young and talented corps

Starters returning: Senior mike linebacker Mark Zalewski (12 starts in 12 games; 83 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 0 interceptions).

Other key returnees: Sophomore sam linebacker Jonathan Casillas (12 games; 10-0.5-0-0) and sophomore will linebacker DeAndre Levy (11 games; 18-1-1-0).

Starters departed: will Dontez Sanders (13 starts in 13 games; 95-9-3.5-1) and sam LaMarr Watkins (12 starts in 13 games; 52-3-0.5-0).

Other key departures: None.

2005 position coach: Bret Bielema

2006 position coach: Dave Doeren

Spring storylines

For the third consecutive season, Zalewski is the Badgers' best linebacker. Now, where to put him? Zalewski thrived as the strongside "sam" linebacker two years ago. Last year UW moved him inside to the mike position out of necessity. He again played well, though he was not quite as disruptive as he was on the edge.

UW must replace starters Sanders and Watkins, but there are a lot of talented options to choose from. The only other member of the 2005 depth at linebacker that is not available this season is Andy Crooks, who has converted to tight end.

Zalewski's position will likely depend on the development of the players around him. The Badgers appear to have three potential standouts in Levy, Casillas and redshirt freshman Elijah Hodge.

Levy played well in a reserve role on the weakside last season and is a heavy favorite to take over as the starter at that position this season, though Zalewski could also play that spot if warranted. A fierce hitter, Levy plays bigger than his listed 220 pounds. He has excellent range and good instincts.

Casillas is a similar-style player in the sense that he is exceptionally athletic for a linebacker and that he plays bigger than his listed weight (208 pounds). Casillas was expected to play strong safety or weakside linebacker when he was recruited out New Brunswick, N.J., but he adapted well to the strongside position while rotating in behind Watkins. He does not quite have Levy's or Zalewski's natural feel for playing linebacker, but Casillas is a football player through and through with a knack for making big plays.

Hodge, the younger brother of Iowa star Abdul Hodge, worked out at mike linebacker all of last season: in fall training camp, on the scout team and in bowl practices. A chronic groin ailment assured him of a redshirt, but he rehabilitated that condition, and was very impressive in bowl practices.

Several other players will be a part of this spring's competition.

Josh Neal, a third-year sophomore walk-on mike ‘backer, is a heavy hitter who is limited in pass coverage but can serve a useful role in short-yardage defense or against run-heavy opponents.

Junior Casey Hogan was in the depth at sam last year, before a broken leg ended his season.

Sophomore Jammar Crane, an undersized but athletic will linebacker, has shown promise at times, including a strong start to fall camp last year. But he fell out of favor and ended up on the scout team. In September, Crane was charged with fraudulent use of a credit card of a sum less than or equal to $2,500, a misdemeanor. He pled guilty in December and entered the first offender's program.

Senior Paul Joran has been in the depth the past two seasons and can play mike or sam.

Redshirt freshman O'Brien Schofield, a good athlete and a solid 235 pounds, will likely play on the strongside this spring.

Sophomore walk-on Ben Landgraf has been a good practice player the past two seasons at sam and will. He has shown a decent ability to play in space and is a darkhorse candidate for a spot in the depth in '06.

An intriguing prospect is Germantown, Wis., native Ryan Flasch. Originally a scholarship player at UNLV, Flasch quietly transferred to Wisconsin last year and is believed to be a walk-on. According to a Las Vegas Review-Journal story from last June, Flasch was part of a two-player competition for the Rebels' starting middle linebacker spot before he transferred.

However the depth chart works out, this will almost certainly be an improved linebacker corps in 2006.

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