Spring Position Preview: Linebackers

With the Wisconsin football team starting its 15-spring practice slate this week, Badger Nation dives into the position battles. Next, we focus on the linebackers, a position that loses two key contributors but has plenty of anxious underclassmen creating healthy competition.

MADISON – Senior Jae McFadden admitted that during the first set of team drills in Wisconsin's first spring practice, it was weird when he looked to his left and his right and did not see linebackers Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy ready to make a play.

Now, the Wisconsin linebackers are going to be looking at McFadden to make the plays.

Casillas and Levy combined to start 74 games at outside linebacker for Wisconsin during the last three seasons and totaled 457 tackles in their careers, but neither of them led UW in tackles a season ago. That honor went to McFadden, who started all 13 games at middle linebacker and made 84 tackles, most of which came with a club on his right hand after breaking it in the team's third game.

This season, McFadden is being moved to weak-side linebacker, the position he played the previous two years and worked on during bowl preparation last season.

"I think with Jaevery being an outside backer and having played a year at ‘mike' is going to help him a lot in his development," defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "He already knows what he's supposed to do on the outside and now he's going to know what is happening at the inside position. As a leader on the defense, he should know everything that happens."

McFadden moving to the outside opens up the position for junior Culmer St. Jean, who has started camp at the middle position after starting the bowl game. St. Jean has three career starts at the position and got acclimated to the game speed by recording a career-high nine tackles against Cal Poly in the most extensive playing time of his career.

When Casillas was unable to play in the first two games of the 2008 season, the Badgers turned to junior Blake Sorensen, who started the two games in place of the senior and has appeared in 24 games at outside linebacker and on special teams.

Most of the competition for the spring looks to be for backup spots, as the Badgers still have a bevy of talented linebackers to pick from after senior Elijah Hodge left the program, two of which are linebackers Tony Megna and Mike Taylor.

After tearing his ACL, MCL and cartilage in the first game of his senior year at Oak Creek High School, Megna worked his way back to become a force on scout and special teams in 2008, and twice was named scout team defensive player of the week.

Taylor also had to battle through injury problems in 2008. A standout wrestler, Taylor had surgery to correct some back and neck problems, making sure he's ready for his tenure at Wisconsin.

Both players understand all the little things expected of linebackers, and both possess a high motor that can't be taught, making them valued commodities. Megna is incredibly strong and motivated to contribute and compete, which bodes well for him to make an impact in the linebacker rotation. Taylor, who finished third at state wrestling as a sophomore, certainly has the strength and should be able to mold into the linebacker role.

Other candidates are sophomore Kevin Rouse, who underwent shoulder surgery and missed the entire 2008 season, at the middle linebacker position, senior Erik Prather, a former walk-on who has worked with the second team at the middle linebacker position, and freshman Leonard Hubbard, who redshirted last season and is known to deliver a sound hit.

"Obviously Mike Taylor we are excited to see work at the mike," outside linebacker coach Randall McCray said. "Mike is from Ashwaubenon (Wis.) and we expected some things out of him last year to come into camp and he had the neck surgery to remove a spur. Got it fixed on him, he's set to go and we're anxious for that. Kevin Rouse had surgery and we're anxious to see him finally play. When he's healthy, he can really strike people now. Leonard Hubbard didn't get to do a lot as a freshman, was primarily on scout team, so I am anxious to see him. There are a bunch of young guys that we are anxious to see."

With all the new faces in the mix, the coaches know that spring practice will be important in creating chemistry among the group.

"I think that's important for our entire scheme," Doeren told UWBadgers.com. "Last year, in our spring, nine of our starters didn't go through spring ball. And that hurts from a chemistry standpoint dramatically when you get into the fall, they just don't have that. We're not in that position right now. We've got most of our guys healthy. The backers and the d-line are working out together every day right now to try to build that as well."

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