MADISON, Wis. — Jim Leonhard says the beauty — but also the scary part — of college football is that programs often can’t rely on a couple of stars for long. As soon as they reach their potential and dominate opponents, it’s off to the NFL, and back to the drawing board for their college team.
So when Wisconsin outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel left for the pros following last season, the coaching staff understood one of its biggest areas of emphasis would involve who would fill their roles.
“There’s always questions,” said Leonhard, the Badgers’ first-year defensive coordinator. “You go through a lot of hypotheticals. If we can’t get pressure, what do we have to get to? Maybe we’ve got a great matchup here.”
Through three games, Wisconsin has had little reason to worry about all the hypotheticals. Instead, the Badgers’ “replace-and-develop” approach has yielded a trio of outside linebackers whose production has been nearly as good as two of the best in the Big Ten from last season.
Outside linebackers Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs and Andrew Van Ginkel have combined for 36 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. They have accounted for 43.1 percent of Wisconsin’s tackles for loss and 50 percent of the sacks. Those numbers are even more impressive considering that when spring practice began, Dooley was the only player in the group who had significant experience playing the position.
“In the spring, I was definitely curious to see what was going to happen with the other outside linebacker spot,” Dooley said. “Obviously, there wasn’t much experience, so it was definitely a big question. But once Leon came in and he was starting to prove himself and then Andrew as well, I think I knew where we stood as a group.”
Dooley gained valuable in-game opportunities last season when he replaced an injured Biegel as a starter opposite Watt for two games against Michigan and Ohio State. He recorded 7 tackles apiece in games against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, and entered spring as a definite starter.
Zack Baun opened the spring in position to start on the other side of Dooley. Coaches then moved Jacobs from inside linebacker to the outside, and he quickly surpassed Baun on the depth chart to become the other starter. Baun is out for the season after sustaining a left foot injury during fall camp, but Jacobs and Van Ginkel have performed at such a high level that Baun’s absence has been mitigated.
Wisconsin’s offensive tackles recognized the talent at outside linebacker when they were forced to block against them every day during fall camp. Jacobs in particular was dominant during 1-on-1 pass-rushing drills, repeatedly beating left tackle Michael Deiter and right tackle David Edwards. But all three players helped to bolster the confidence teammates had in the unit.
“I think they’ve been exactly what I expected them to be,” Deiter said. “Right away my first couple practices at tackle was Leon, Van Ginkel, Dooley, all those guys. They’re really good pass rushers and they’re stout in the run game. They have everything you want in that 3-4 outside linebacker. Body type, and I think they’re just smart players at the same time. They’re pretty freakish athletically.”
Last season, Watt finished with 63 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks to earn a pair of first-team All-America honors. Watt was such a force that he played only one full season at outside linebacker before leaving school a year early for the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Biegel added 44 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 4 sacks to earn second-team all-Big Ten honors. He went in the fourth round to the Green Bay Packers.
Jacobs ranks second on the team with 16 tackles, including 4 tackles for loss, and said he hasn’t felt any pressure to live up to their production. He noted Watt did not approach his job any differently last season when he was tasked with filling the role previously occupied by Joe Schobert, who was the Big Ten’s linebacker of the year in 2015.
What’s more important to Jacobs is understanding how best to play the position.
“Pre-snap, I’m 100 percent in knowing what my assignment is,” Jacobs said. “I think that’s like half the job of being outside. The rules put you in a good position to make plays. And then just shooting my shot. I’m taking all the chances I need to take and just playing hard.”
The swiftness with which Van Ginkel ascended into the playing rotation has helped to ease the burden on Dooley and Jacobs. Van Ginkel played defensive end at South Dakota and in junior college at Iowa Western. But his athleticism and knack for finding the backfield made him an obvious candidate at outside linebacker for the Badgers.
At South Dakota, he was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Freshman of the Year after recording 18.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. He tallied 13.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in junior college.
“I think he has a great understanding of the defense,” Leonhard said. “He picked it up probably quicker than we even expected considering we were asking him to do some things he hadn’t done before.”
Van Ginkel credited Dooley and Jacobs for accelerating his development since he transferred to Wisconsin in time for spring practice.
“They’ve been very helpful, with both knowledge and helping the playbook,” Van Ginkel said. “If I have a question or don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I can ask them. They’ll give me the answer right away. They won’t shy away from it. I’m really thankful for them and what they bring to the table. They know what it’s like playing.”
Dooley said the position group was still looking for ways to improve. BYU represented the first team on Wisconsin’s schedule that didn’t specialize in an up-tempo offense, although the Cougars still attempted some quicker looks with a backup quarterback. When Big Ten play arrives, the outside linebackers will try to make even more plays in the backfield on five- and seven-step drops from opposing quarterbacks.
Even if Wisconsin’s new trio doesn’t carry the same name recognition as the old duo, the expectations haven’t changed. And so far, neither has the production.
“Two great guys left for the NFL,” Van Ginkel said. “Those two guys are going to be hard to replace, but the next guy has to step up. I feel like the two guys in front of me and me, we’ve really accepted our role and have really become better players on the field.”