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Grading the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers: Linebacker

Wisconsin’s defense ran the Big Ten this year, let’s just say the linebackers had a big hand in becoming the most feared defense in the B1G.

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Yes, there’s still this little thing called the Orange Bowl to be played down in Miami, Fla. and all. But, the 2017 season is in the books and it was arguably one of the greatest seasons in Wisconsin Badgers football history.

A 12-0 regular season and nearly making the College Football Playoff cemented that fact.

Previous Grades:Defensive Line | Running Back |

But, how did the Badgers become 12-0 and what did each position contribute to the amazing season? It’s time to rewind and unpack the 2017 season…this time with a look at the position everyone wants to talk about on defense — linebacker.

 

Highlight

Wisconsin’s linebacking group was expected to drop off a bit in 2017 with the losses of both Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt to the NFL. That didn’t exactly happen though, and one could say this group had a better overall campaign in 2017 than it did with Biegel and Watt in the lineup.

That was the No. 1 question facing this group and they aced the answer to the test in front of them. Leon Jacobs moved from the deep inside linebacker position to the outside and didn’t disappoint after a strong spring. Instead, he finished the season third on the team in tackles (55) and had 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery for a touchdown to his name. Senior Garrett Dooley was equal to the task on the other side, racking up 40 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks (which led the team).

We haven’t even mentioned the fact that T.J. Edwards went from criminally underrated last season (see lack of postseason awards in 2016) to a 1st team AP All-American and Butkus Award finalist this season.

Anyone questioning if the Badgers defense was going to take a drop off after losing its second defensive coordinator in as many offseasons and two NFL draft picks got a rude awakening as to the depth of UW’s system and its recruiting efforts across the board. Once again, the linebackers were the heart and soul of UW’s defense and a large reason many believe they were the best defense in the country this season.

Lowlight

One could be left wondering just how much more dangerous the pass rush would’ve been had Jack Cichy not hurt his knee in fall camp. It hasn’t been a fun couple of years for the now departed linebacker, but if you added his promise to a group that produced really good numbers without him opposing offenses may have been in even more trouble.

When you’re reaching for an injury to a player and that player wasn’t really missed on the field…well, it was a very good year indeed. Such was the case for the linebackers at UW in 2017. It was hard to pick a lowlight at all, so we’ll go with not having the full complement of players to make this defense even more dangerous than it already was.

Grade: A +

An AP 1st team All-American, the emergence of two seniors at outside linebacker and no need to worry about depth due to injury? Yes, it was a very good season for the Badgers linebackers.

T.J. Edwards’ overall season was certainly worth noting, but it wasn’t just his production that makes this grade an A+ for me. It was the fact that UW lost two starting outside linebackers to the NFL and never missed a beat. There was good work from Dooley, Jacobs and even Andrew Van Ginkel at outside linebacker. Edwards got the publicity, but Ryan Connelley led the team in tackles, while Chris Orr played a major role at inside linebacker. Oh, and Arrington Farrar stepped in to the inside linebacker position in fall camp and contributed nicely at an already deep position (16 total tackles in 12 games played). Let’s not forget about the emergence of freshman Mike Maskalunas either, who ended up with 10 tackles in just six games played.

Point being, everyone from the first team to the deepest of players on the roster made an excellent contribution at linebacker for the Badgers in 2017.

Outlook for 2018

Will he or won’t he? That is the question facing junior All-American linebacker T.J. Edwards..as in, will he or won’t he declare for the NFL draft. The good news is there is plenty of depth at the inside linebacker position and a tandem of Chris Orr and Ryan Connelley with some Arrington Farrar and Mike Maskalunas in the mix isn’t a bad one at all (not to mention a really good looking crop of young players in the mix too).

At outside linebacker it will be time to replace a tandem of starters in Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs, but with Andrew Van Ginkel’s solid contributions in 2017 and a host of young players in the mix this should be a position that is good to go in 2018 too.

However, there will be a clear battle for playing time next to Van Ginkel. An injury to Zack Baun this offseason makes for an interesting battle for the starting spot opposite of Van Ginkel. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell could be in the mix, as well as young names like Izayah Green-May and Noah Burks. Don’t sleep on Tyler Johnson either, as he was a special teams ace and recorded 8 total tackles including a sack in 2017 himself.

If history at this position as taught us anything since the switch to the 3-4, it is that whatever losses happen on paper there is always someone ready to step in and take over as a star. Just who that person will be in 2018 may be the most fun story of the offseason in Madison.

 

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.

What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.

Best Case Scenario

Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.

Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.

No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.

It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.

Worst Case Scenario

What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?

Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.

Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.

The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.

Most Likely to Happen

The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.

I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.

Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.

But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.

Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.

In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.

Best Case Scenario:

Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.

Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.

Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.

Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.

In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.

Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.

Worst Case Scenario:

Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.

Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.

If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.

Most Likely to Happen:

Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.

I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.

That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.

So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.

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Best, Worst case scenarios for Badgers Wide Receivers in 2019

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The heat of summer is upon us and the recruiting trail has been even hotter for the Wisconsin Badgers. However, that heat also indicates that the long offseason nightmare is about to be over.

With that in mind, we’re taking a summer-long look at each position group heading in to the 2019 season.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line |

Today, we flip back to the offensive side of the ball and look at a second skill position — wide receiver.

After what was supposed to be a breakout year for the group in 2018, what will this group have in store for 2019? Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios at play.

Best Case Scenario

If the Badgers want to get going in the pass game, the wide receiver group needs to step up the deep game in a big way. While A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have proven to be reliable assets, 2018 felt much like they all barely scratched the surface of their potential.

The trio combined for 95 receptions (which was 53 percent of all receptions as a team), 1,212 yards and 11 of 19 touchdown receptions on the year.

For this season, the best case scenario actually involves the quarterback position almost more-so than anything this group can do. The receivers could benefit from a consistently good passer at quarterback and a more open playbook as well.

Whether it is Jack Coan or wonderkid recruit, Graham Mertz, the consistency and trust to open up the playbook needs to be there.

Additionally, an increased role for speedster Aaron Cruickshank would be the best case scenario.

Worst Case Scenario

Danny Davis emerged as the most targeted receiver last season, catching 40 passes to lead all wide receivers on the team. He will enter his junior season with an increase in expectations and no off-field distractions like he had to deal with last season thanks to his stupid decision-making.

That aside, Davis is the most well-rounded receiver in this group and the one that could wind up be the deep threat that has been missing for awhile now. So, any injury to Davis would be bad news.

In fact, any sustained injuries to the likes of Davis, Pryor and Taylor would not be good. UW is very inexperienced behind this trio, and inexperience at QB and WR may not be a fun combination.

Dare I say, it would lead to UW not being back on top of the West division mountain?

Most Likely to Happen

I fully believe that the coaching staff will go in to the season knowing which quarterback they’ll go with and stick with. Confidence is key to helping this wide receiver group and I expect the Badgers offense to be much more balanced in 2019 than it was over the past two seasons.

Look for Davis, Pryor and Taylor to all increase their overall numbers and likely go over the 15 touchdown mark as a group. More importantly, I expect much more play-action and much more from the deep passing game too. That should be music to a talented, but under used group’s ears.

Don’t be surprised to see one of the Badgers wide receivers make a run at All-Big Ten honors as a result of that shift back to balance.

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Hill is Badgers QB in 2021 class

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With all the flurry of activity around the 2020 class, apparently someone wanted to bring the 2021 class some attention on Tuesday as well.

Following back-to-back linebacker commitments in the 2020 class, Wisconsin picked up a verbal commitment from 2021 quarterback Deacon Hill.

The 3-star player out of Santa Barbara, Calif. went with his gut despite the potential to earn offers from the likes of USC, Oregon and Oregon State — all much closer to home.

Instead, Hill chose the Badgers over official offers from Kansas State and Nevada to date.

The 6-3, 225-pound quarterback was first offered by Wisconsin quarterback coach Jon Budmayr in May. It was the first overall offer Hill received in the 2021 class.

Wisconsin was able to get out in front of the 2021 quarterback class after a pair of big targets in 2020 passed on offers from the Badgers. Once that happened, the focus turned to the next class and it paid off in building a quick and solid relationship with Hill.

It may not be a big home run get like Graham Mertz was, but then again the Badgers were hip to Mertz before most of the country was and that paid off as he developed.

Hill is much more physically imposing than most quarterbacks entering their junior season would be, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have mobility either.

Nevada’s more spread-orientated offense and Kansas State’s quarterbacks are certainly going to be mobile ones in the new offense that is being installed.

As for Hill, the 247Sports composite rankings have him as the No. 30 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class. But, given the small amount of attention paid to that class so far we’ll see where that ends up should Hill hit the QB camp circuit in the coming months and year.

UW will only be taking one quarterback in this class, so they certainly trusted their early evaluation of the tool set that Hill possesses and could posses by the time he is finished at Wisconsin.

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