Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas — the understudies for 2005 seniors Dontez Sanders and LaMarr Watkins — flipped positions this spring, with Levy moving to sam and Casillas moving to will (weakside). The new positions suited both players well.
Levy suffered a groin injury late in spring but is expected to be ready for summer conditioning when it begins June 12.
Redshirt freshmen Elijah Hodge and O'Brien Schofield spent the spring as the backups at mike and sam, respectively, and appear slated to earn situational playing time, particularly in short yardage situations.
The second-team will spot was a wide open affair between Jammar Crane and walk-ons Ryan Flasch and Ben Landgraf. Just as Flasch, a former scholarship linebacker at UNLV who transferred to UW last summer, was pulling away from the pack, he suffered a knee injury. Though it appeared serious initially, Flasch is expected to be full strength in less than a month, and will be ready for summer workouts.
Walk-on Josh Neal is the third-team mike ‘backer.
Senior Paul Joran, who can play all three linebacker positions, filled in as the first-team sam after Levy's injury. Joran will likely head into the season as the No. 3 sam but is for all intents and purposes the Badgers' No. 6 overall linebacker, perhaps higher depending on Schofield's growth curve this fall.
Casey Hogan, who was UW's No. 2 sam last season before breaking the fibula and tibia in his lower right leg against Northwestern, sat out the entire spring while he continued to recover from that injury.
Redshirt freshman Jae McFadden converted to sam linebacker from tight end.
Spring MVP — Zalewski. He should be a star as a senior, perhaps as good of a player as A.J. Hawk or Chad Greenway were last year for Ohio State and Iowa, respectively. Seriously. Zalewski has that kind of potential. Among Big Ten linebackers, only Penn State's Paul Posluszny should head into 2006 with more hype.
A captain as a junior last year, Zalewski is a trusted leader and a fantastic talent. The most frightening part for Big Ten teams: he was just getting the hang of the mike position last year. He played the position this spring as if he had his entire life, flying to the ball and making plays all over the field. Assuming the Badgers' defensive line does not suffer another calamitous string of injuries, Zalewski should have freedom to roam for the football. He is terrific against the run, strong in coverage and an outstanding pass rusher on the blitz.
Springing ahead — The linebacker class of 2005 — Levy, Casillas, Hodge and Schofield. The Badgers are going to get a lot of mileage out of this quartet.
Levy and Casillas, while still learning their positions, should be quite productive this season. And the ceiling on what they can accomplish in their careers is very high.
Levy will have to stay healthy of course, but he fits well at the strongside spot with his ability to play physical football at the line of scrimmage and run well in coverage.
Casillas is a dynamic athlete, a player with enough speed to play any skill position and the physicality and instincts to be a big-time contributor at the will spot. It would not be surprising if he leads the team in tackles this fall.
Levy and Casillas will not head into 2006 with a lot of experience and they certainly could use some refinement on the particulars of playing linebacker at a Big Ten school. But they are going to make a lot of plays while they continue along that growth curve.
Hodge will be Zalewski's understudy at mike and will play alongside him in short yardage situations. Hodge is a physical player who runs exceptionally well for a middle linebacker. He has added about 25 pounds (to roughly 220) since he arrived on campus last summer and has the frame to carry more weight still, which will help him hold up versus the run. Still in the early stages of his development, Hodge has extraordinary potential.
This is a broken record, but Schofield is another player with tremendous speed for a linebacker. And at 235 pounds he has good size for the position as well. Schofield is still very much learning the sam position after playing defensive end in high school, so if a reserve sam were needed early in the 2006 season, it would almost certainly be Joran, as fundamentally sound a player as the Badgers have. But Schofield — like Casillas, Hodge and Levy — made a big jump this spring and is well on his way. He may join Zalewski, Hodge and Joran as linebackers in short-yardage sets. And Schofield, a natural pass rusher with an impressive burst off the edge, could serve as a rush end in the nickel.
Pressing questions — Few and far between. As far as the depth goes, the one real question is at second-team will linebacker. Flasch, though, will likely command that role in fall camp. In any case, Joran could play that position in a pinch.
UW will need its young athletes to continue to develop, but there is every reason for Wisconsin to have confidence in its linebackers.
Looking ahead — This has been a position of spring consternation in recent seasons. Not so this year. The starters should be very productive, and may prove to be an elite corps.
The reserves are mostly young and untested and will need to develop in a hurry to guard against injuries, but there is legitimate depth here. Joran is a quality insurance policy, a program guy who is tough and assignment sound.
While Neal is limited in coverage, he is a solid player against the run who could do the job if needed.
These are not pressing questions, but it will be interesting to see where Hogan and McFadden fit in the fall. McFadden is a good athlete who showed some natural coverage instincts in limited reps — he had a pair of pass breakups in the spring game. He could end up at sam or will long term. Hogan had an excellent spring last year and a good fall training camp. If he can come back healthy this fall, he can give UW another solid player in the depth at sam.
Look for several linebackers to shine on special teams. Levy and Casillas were tremendous there last season, but expect their special teams roles to diminish now that they are in the starting lineup.