NFL Draft Q&A With Mark Zalewski

Whether he's chasing down running backs on the football field or a pike while fishing, Wisconsin middle linebacker Mark Zalewski uses his intensity and athleticism to his advantage. Learn more about this NFL Draft prospect in his exclusive interview with's Ed Thompson.

Ed Thompson: Give the fans a little bit of background on your college career…

Mark Zalweski: I got to Wisconsin in 2002. I was red-shirted that year, it wasn't too exciting. The next year I started primarily on special teams and, towards the end of that season, started against Michigan State at outside linebacker and played quite a bit in the bowl game. Going into my sophomore year I started the whole year at outside linebacker and received an Honorable Mention in the Big Ten. My junior year I was a captain and I played middle linebacker. Unfortunately, I sprained my knee in the Purdue game; I missed a majority of that game and the Illinois game, but finished my year off with the Penn State game. Then my senior year I was a captain again and played middle linebacker. I led the team in tackles that year with ninety and had eleven interceptions and received another All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.

ET: What did being named as defensive captain for two consecutive years by your teammates mean to you?

MZ: It's an honor. Coaches can sit back and pick captains, but I think it means a lot more when the guys that you're playing with and work out with everyday -- and you go through the struggle with everyday -- really respect you and vote for you for that honor.

ET: I read a quote in which you were referred to as "the heart and soul of the defense." Talk a little bit about your role out there on the field and being viewed in that perspective.

MZ: This year, everybody knows that I would do anything just to get a win. A lot of times this year I was kind of banged up with a couple of sprained ankles and stuff and didn't practice all that much, but every game I was out there and I would sacrifice by body and everything for this team. I think people really understood that. And out there on the field I think I brought that leadership quality. No matter what the situation was, I took that step to get everybody fired up and ready to stop the offense.

ET: You had to make a lot of adjustments over the course of your college career, different positions and coordinators…how did all of that impact you and your progress as a player?

MZ: I think overall it made me a more complete player. I did go through three different linebacker and defensive coordinators, so it's kind of tough at first to get used to the terminology and how these guys think and how they want their linebackers to play. I think it helped make me a more versatile player considering I started my sophomore year at outside and finished up the last two years in the middle. Even at times this year, I'd be taking first team practice reps in the middle and going to the outside for the twos, so it gave me a lot more knowledge about football. One of the hardest things about playing in the middle was the angles were a little bit different and playing off the ball a little bit more, but I got used to that and playing up at the line, so I think it helped me in the long run.

ET: Do you feel that middle linebacker is your best position?

MZ: I really think I can play either (inside or outside). My junior year I was a little bit uncomfortable in the middle just because they moved me there late in fall camp due to injuries…they weren't really sure who was going to play in that spot and it took some adjusting. I thought before that I was really comfortable playing on the outside and I think this last year I really got to that level in the middle.

Mark Zalewski knocks the ball loose to break up a pass in the 2006 Florida Citrus Bowl (Getty Images/Doug Benc)
ET: What are your strengths against the run that will serve you well at the pro level?

MZ: I'm very physical, I can react very quickly, real sudden. Throughout my years I've seen guard pulls, I've seen tackle pulls and I think I've really become a smart player. I've started understanding how those different looks by the offensive lineman, no matter what it is, kind of determines where the ball's going to go and what play it is. I think I can really react and see that quickly.

ET: How about against the pass?

MZ: Going into the spring and the whole summer that was my biggest emphasis; the zone coverage and getting a bead on things, reacting to my assignment --but also looking at the quarterback and reacting to the quarterback's eyes. I've worked hard on that and it was pretty evident this year.  I thought I really broke on the ball a lot better this year. I got my first two interceptions this year and a more pass deflections, so I can just react quickly to the quarterback's eyes and still play my zone assignment.

ET: Your size, speed, and instincts play well to the Cover-2 defensive scheme. Is that a scheme you have much experience in and would you be able to cover the deep ball in the middle and fit into a role like that?

MZ: That's something that we didn't run too much of my first couple years here, it was a lot of man coverage. But the new guys coming in this year, the defensive coordinator last year and our linebacker coach integrated that quite a bit more. We based it off what Tony Dungy did in Tampa, that Tampa-2 coverage, where the MIKE linebacker is responsible for the middle seam, and that worked well. I can utilize my speed and get back there. It really helped me having these guys come in and explain it and we watched some NFL film and saw how those guys did it.

ET: Players play this game for different reasons, what is it that motivates you to keep going out on that field?

MZ: It's really become a love of the game. I don't think I can really ever get enough big hits. I want that feeling of a perfect hit. I think it's the only place in the world where it's legal to run at a guy full speed and try to take him out. I really love being on the football field and making a great play and getting everyone excited.

ET: I saw a report that you ran about a 4.6-flat forty. Is that right, and what are you striving to run this year at your Pro Day?

MZ: Yeah, that's right. I'm hoping to at least run a 4.55. I think that's definitely possible. When you're in the program here we do a lot of speed training and I think they really take it another step up. Every senior, once we go through this program, improves on their personal best. So I'm hoping to at least run a 4.55.

ET: Tell us about your experience playing in the East-West Shrine Game and what you learned.

MZ: It was a different experience. It was tough at first because the defensive scheme was one I had never played before, where the middle linebacker had to play two different depths. But I thought I really improved throughout the week and learned that scheme. It was a unique experience and it was great to get some coaching from men who have been coaching in the NFL and are coaching in the NFL.

ET: Do you think you raised your visibility in that game?

MZ: Yeah. Some of the scouts were saying the whole week of practice was a lot more important than the game. I think everyday in practice some of these guys who weren't really sure of how well I could move saw that my skill in that area, and I felt I did well -- and everything I've heard would agree with that.

ET: What do you like to do for fun?

MZ: I love to fish; I try to get out there as much as possible. We have a cabin in northern Wisconsin and anytime they let us leave here I try to get up there and kick back in a boat and fish. We just went ice fishing yesterday, so I enjoy getting out there any way that I can.

ET: Is that something you've done with your family all through your life?

MZ: Yeah, my dad was always a big fisherman and I actually went with my brother yesterday, and he really gets into it. He got into fly-fishing a couple years ago, he moved out to Montana. So I took a few visits out there and tried to get into that also. It's just kind of been a thing we've always done together.

ET: How do you reconcile your intense personality on the field while off the field you just sit with a rod and wait for the fish to nibble?

MZ: They always say you have to be real patient to be a fisherman, but I guess it's kind of my football psyche coming off. But if they're not really biting in one spot, I'm the first guy to get up and move and try a different spot.

ET: But you get so impatient that you dive in the water and try to chase them down, do you?

MZ: I have on a few occasions tried to. One time my friend had a fish on the line, a pretty large pike, and it got off. And I almost threw my whole body in trying to scoop it back up -- but it didn't work so well (laughs).

ET: Is there anything else you want to share with everyone that they should know about you?

MZ: I'm a guy who's an extremely hard worker, a good leader, and a guy who's quite a bit more athletic than people think.

A member of the Professional Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's NFL and college football player interviews have been published across the network and syndicated through's NFL team pages.

Scout NFL Network Top Stories