This is the ninth in a series of 12 previews leading up to the start of fall camp for the Wisconsin football team. For more, check out the previous previews and come back to Land of 10 throughout the week.
July 20: Outside linebackers
July 21: Cornerbacks
July 22: Safeties
July 23: Specialists
Today’s position: Outside linebackers
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Garret Dooley (redshirt senior) and Leon Jacobs (redshirt senior) or Zack Baun (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: Andrew Van Ginkel (redshirt junior), Christian Bell (redshirt freshman), Keldric Preston (redshirt freshman)
The breakdown: Wisconsin has plenty of production to replace with the departures of bookends T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel off last season’s team. And while the Badgers don’t open the season with the same type of nationally recognized names, they have the skill at outside linebacker to be equally effective.
“The expectations in our room aren’t going to change,” Wisconsin outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said during spring practice. “And I think we do have some talented guys in our room. A year ago, everybody was wondering how we were going to replace Joe Schobert. Joe was a great player, but we were able to have other guys step up into their role. Obviously nobody knew what kind of year T.J. Watt was going to have at this time last year, and so hopefully we have the same kind of success story.”
The next success story could be fifth-year senior Garret Dooley, who has one starting outside linebacker spot locked up entering fall camp. Dooley tallied 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season. He played in all 14 games, made two quality starts in place of an injured Biegel against Michigan and Ohio State and continued to excel the following two weeks against Iowa and Nebraska. Tibesar called Dooley “a complete player” who was refining his game and already has a good feel for how to attack based on formations and backfield sets.
The other outside linebacker spot could be more interesting. Zack Baun began spring practice running with the first-team defense, and he may earn the starting job. Last season, Baun recorded 15 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss. Tibesar noted he must continue to show consistency in a full-time role. Baun played quarterback in high school, so he is learning the intricacies required of an outside linebacker.
“I had never played defense in my life, not even in middle school,” Baun said this spring. “It was a completely different game. And then you get thrown in with 315-pound mammoths on the offensive line. It’s hard to hold your ground at first. But just the reps and watching the older guys helped me along the way. Redshirting definitely helped as well.”
Fifth-year senior Leon Jacobs could overtake Baun for the starting job. He moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker during the spring and has the athleticism and strength to make serious noise there in 2017. Jacobs has played several positions and has bided his time in the Badgers’ system. He played outside linebacker in 2013, inside linebacker in 2014 and 2015 and fullback in 2016 before moving to linebacker during the season. Jacobs managed to record 37 tackles last season, which ranked ninth on the team.
With a full offseason to prepare, Jacobs has proven capable of being a starter, opening the 2015 season as one of the Badgers’ starting inside linebackers before a toe injury cut his campaign short.
“I think he’s a guy that is capable of having a really big impact on this team, and I’m excited for him to have that senior year that you’re playing your best football,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said after the spring game. “He works. He’s talented. I think he’ll be really a big part of what we do defensively.”
Watt declared a year early for the NFL draft after finishing third on the team with 63 tackles last season, leading the Badgers with 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and earning All-American honors. Biegel was a second-team All-Big Ten selection who added 44 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. So it will take multiple players to help fill that void.
That list includes reserves Christian Bell and Andrew Van Ginkel. Bell enrolled at Alabama for the 2016 spring semester but transferred to Wisconsin in the fall. Van Ginkel was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Freshman of the Year at South Dakota and spent one season at Iowa Western Community College before enrolling at Wisconsin. Van Ginkel has tons of potential and could prove to be a major transfer acquisition for the Badgers.
“It’s a hard-working program here,” Van Ginkel said in February on national signing day. “Everything has to be earned. That’s my biggest motto right now is I’m not given anything. I have to earn everything, so don’t take anything for granted.”
Best position battle: Jacobs and Baun fighting for a starting outside linebacker spot will be one position to watch during fall camp. Jacobs’ physicality and experience could give him the edge. But Baun is athletic and played well in a limited capacity last season. How Van Ginkel fits into the outside linebacker rotation also will be important.
Leon Jacobs says: “I think I made some plays in spring that allows me to stay alive in the games with those guys. I’ve set goals for myself. I’ll have every play on a checklist to put down did I win or lose that rep? If you go through everything like that, then the rest will take care of itself in terms of the bigger picture stuff.”