MADISON, Wis. — There were times last season when Andrew Van Ginkel didn’t have to be the best pass rusher on Wisconsin’s football team. As the third outside linebacker in the Badgers’ playing rotation, Van Ginkel recognized that he played a complementary role to starters Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs.
Not so this season. Dooley and Jacobs used up their eligibility and are preparing for the NFL draft. That leaves Van Ginkel as the most established outside linebacker on Wisconsin’s roster. And the time to become a consistently dominant force off the edge is now.
“I think it’s just maintaining and even growing that confidence that he is that leader, he is that guy,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “Being the third a year ago, it’s kind of, ‘Oh, if I play well, great. If I don’t flash, it’s kind of OK. These other guys are playing well.’ And now it’s taking a step forward of being that consistent week in, week out.
“I think he had that mentality anyway. But now it’s just making sure that you are that good. You’re that talented. You’re a playmaker for us, and it’s bringing guys along with you and leading the rest of the group.”
Van Ginkel arrived on campus last spring after taking a winding path to Madison. He began his college career at FCS school South Dakota, where he earned first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors for totaling 18½ tackles for loss and 9 sacks. He transferred to Iowa Western Community College and recorded 13 more tackles for loss with 3½ sacks during the 2016 season.
Van Ginkel chose Wisconsin over opportunities at Iowa and Nebraska and quickly set himself apart during spring practice. He finished the season with 39 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6½ sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions and 4 pass breakups. His tackles-for-loss total ranked fourth on the team, and his sack total tied for second. Van Ginkel also learned important lessons about the mindset required to compete at the highest levels of college football.
“It ain’t a patty-cake league,” Van Ginkel said. “You have to come in here and really work your tail off. Nothing’s going to be given to you. You have to come in and you have to fight for the line of scrimmage or fight for the ball or whatever it may be. You really have to fight for everything and really push towards just being the best that you can be.”
The more Van Ginkel saw the field, the better he played, as evidenced by his closing stretch in the Big Ten championship and the Orange Bowl. He intercepted Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and returned the pick 9 yards for a touchdown to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter of the league title game. In the second quarter, Van Ginkel forced and recovered a fumble on Buckeyes tailback Mike Weber at the Ohio State 11-yard line, which led to a Badgers field goal.
During Wisconsin’s 34-24 victory against Miami in the Orange Bowl, Van Ginkel came up with another critical interception. He picked off Miami quarterback Malik Rosier early in the second quarter and set up Wisconsin at the Hurricanes’ 23-yard line. Three plays later, Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook connected with receiver Danny Davis on a 20-yard touchdown that brought Wisconsin within 14-10.
Later in the second quarter, Van Ginkel sacked Rosier on third down, which forced a Miami punt. Wisconsin scored on the ensuing possession to take a 24-14 lead.
“It really gave me the confidence knowing that I can compete with these guys and I can just make plays when the lights are shining on me,” Van Ginkel said. “For us as outside linebackers, we pride ourselves on making plays. If we need a play or we need someone to step up, we can do it, get a sack on third down or force a fumble to get the offense the ball back. It helped me a lot going into this offseason just so I can continue to learn from it and what I did wrong and continue to grow from it.”
3 TKLS, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 FF
3 TKLS, 1 INT, 1 SACK
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 17, 2018
Van Ginkel is trying to carry the lessons he learned into his senior season and become the leader Wisconsin’s outside linebacker group needs him to be. Dooley led the Badgers with 12 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks last season. Jacobs ranked third on the team with 60 tackles and first with 8 quarterback hurries. Van Ginkel is the leading returner in sacks, and no one else on the team registered more than 3.
“When you can be a threat like that up front, you’ve got the quarterback thinking twice about you,” Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon said. “And when you’re in the quarterback’s head like that, that makes our job easier in the back end. A lot of the plays I feel like the DBs have made, especially here in the past, it’s not really just been on us doing something spectacular.
“It was really more so the front seven creating crazy opportunities for us to make plays and creating a tremendous rush. When you’ve got guys like that up front that can do that, it creates a lot of opportunities for you in the back.”
Van Ginkel’s role is even more important as the team attempts to determine the rest of the outside linebacker rotation in 2018. Zack Baun has an opportunity to earn the other starting job if he can stay healthy. Baun sustained a left foot injury during spring practice and missed the final week and a half. He broke his left foot during fall camp and missed all of last season.
Tyler Johnson is the only player with significant experience at outside linebacker. He recorded 8 tackles with 2 tackles for loss and 1 sack. Christian Bell, Izayah Green-May, Noah Burks and Arrington Farrar are among the outside linebackers vying for playing time. Farrar has played in 39 games as a defensive back and an inside linebacker but moved outside this spring.
Van Ginkel said he has tried to work on different moves to bypass tackles on the offensive line so he can strengthen his pass rush. He said he hopes all the time spent fine-tuning details will lead to more consistency and make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable. Based on the way he is performing as spring practice ends, he appears headed in the right direction.
“I love what he’s done this spring,” Leonhard said. “He’s improved. A guy that from the end of last year to this point has gotten better. That’s doing exactly what he needed to do and just excited for him to kind of be a little bit more vocal with that group and lead it. He has some experience now, and he knows what’s expected on Saturdays.”