For starters, the Badgers have to replace senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden, the team's leading tackler the last two seasons. Not a huge problem but a problem none the less.
The big concern is how will Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland and up-and-coming Mike Taylor respond after missing all of spring practice (and in Taylor's case, the last six games of the season) recovering from surgeries.
Both players are cleared medically to practice and while Bielema might limit both during two-a-day practices, the Wisconsin coach isn't looking forward to their reaction.
"(Taylor's) knee is feeling really good," Bielema said. "We don't want to aggravate it, because once you aggravate it, it gets that way (nagging problem). I doubt Chris will be (limited), just because he doesn't like to be. He'll get pissed."
Taylor, a sophomore from Ashwaubenon, started the first seven games last season and was leading the Badgers in tackles before a knee injury in the Iowa game ended his season, finishing with 46 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. It was a hard setback for Taylor, who spent his redshirt season recovering from neck surgery and has battled other nagging injuries off and on.
The silver lining was that the injury made way for Borland, who made a big impact with 54 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, five forced fumbles, three fumble recovering and an interception. Borland displays the versatility needed to be a Big Ten athlete, being able to play linebacker, participate on kickoff and even as a kicker, kicking extra points in the Hawaii game last year.
"Forty-four shows up," Bielema said after the Indiana victory last year. "I know, it's kind of funny. He wanted to wear number four before the year started up, and I wouldn't let him, because I don't want a freshman to come in and wear a single digit number. You kind of have to earn those things. I'm going to give him some heat, here at the end of the year, because I know he is going to want to switch. You are playing the way you are, you might want to stick with that number. He is really just an amazing human being and a special kid."
With both of them healthy, the sophomore make up one of the best one-two punches in the country but as special as those two underclassmen are, Wisconsin has two senior linebackers that have become proven commodities.
Senior Culmer St. Jean is expected to set in for McFadden and set the pace for the unit. Starting at middle linebacker for the first 11 games, St. Jean finished second on the team with 64 tackles.
St. Jean always had the size (6-foot, 232 pounds), speed and athletic ability to play the position, but it was just a matter of him finding consistency in pass coverage and run defense. St. Jean showed through the spring that he's ready to make the next step and become a leader on the defense.
"I am big, and I love contact," St Jean said. "That is why I play football. Just knowing the defense, knowing where everybody is, and being able to clean up others mistakes. As a middle linebacker that is your job, if someone makes a mistake, you have to be there to erase it."
If players consider St. Jean the vocal leader of the group, Sorensen would be the soft-spoken one. Sorensen, who split time with St. Jean at the Mike, added 40 tackles and can play all three linebacker positions. Having played in 37 career games, Sorensen is a nice compliment to UW's two young studs at linebacker – Taylor and Borland.
"We'll have four guys with starting experience in games last year," Sorensen. We'll see what happens during fall camp. I don't think anybody knows. It will be a battle and competition to get out there. If guys go down, other people can step up."
One of those players that the coaching staff is hoping to step in is junior linebacker Kevin Rouse, who finally showed what he can do when he is healthy. Battling the injury bug that has stunted his progression, Rouse showed his explosiveness on multiple occasions, having the ability to take on blocks, cover running backs out of the backfield and read the play as it develops.
"He's fun to watch," Doeren said. "He's a lot faster than people think. He's probably the third fastest backer we've got. He's finally knowing where to go where before he would think and slow him down. He's just playing ball. He can run, which is one of the reasons we offered him. I really like his ability that way."
In addition to Rouse, Ethan Armstrong and Kevin Claxton all made strides with the sophomore on the sideline. Armstrong opened eyes at the spring game, as the freshman walk-on led all defenders with 14 tackles.
Claxton started his career as a safety, but was moved to linebacker when the Badgers were suffering with a lack of depth. Still a raw prospect, Claxton is a hybrid – being able to naturally back pedal into pass coverage and make a play on the ball or charge the line of scrimmage to stop the ball carrier.
As excited as Bielema is now to see what this group can do, he's anxious to see how his three Ohio recruits develop. Grabbing three linebackers in the 2010 class, all from the state of Ohio, Archbishop Alter's Cody Byers (a former teammate of Borland) has quickness (4.6 40-yard dash) that allows him to cover the field to sideline to sideline as an outside backer; Huber Height's Josh Harrison is built like a middle linebacker (solid in coverage, great size and has the intelligence) and Walsh Jesuit's Cameron Ontko has solid athleticism and has an eye-opening ability to make plays.
"The thing that all the Ohio kids have in my opinion is that they can run very well," Bielema said. "I like to get them in the program and see where they end up."
The Badgers have their top four linebackers in Borland, Sorensen, St. Jean and Taylor, but Bielema and Doeren can take solace in the fact that the depth at linebackers has outlook has a much rosier complexion.
The likely scenario
The Badgers enter the season with four linebackers with starting experience who combined for 203 tackles a year ago and a multitude of young players that were able to cut their teeth during the spring. That speaks volumes to the options Wisconsin can accomplish and the different looks they can throw out against opposing offenses.
Wisconsin is going to rotate linebackers on every series, so there's going to be no real starting trio. Borland and Taylor are too talented to keep off the field when they are healthy, St. Jean has reportedly made fantastic strides getting his body ready for the season and Sorensen is too versatile to not have on the field.
Depending on the situation, Armstrong, Rouse and Claxton could see playing time, especially on third down or goal line packages. I doubt the three Ohio recruits are going to play right away, but people said that about Borland last year. If I had to pick one, I would say to keep your eye on Ontko.