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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.

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.

 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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