While the running back position has had the longest run as the star of the Wisconsin Badgers football team, there could be a really good argument made that linebacker is where it’s at these days.
Heading in to 2018, it is yet another year of transition for the group. Gone are two outside linebackers who were productive in very different ways than the past groups.
In their place, Wisconsin will turn to a veteran junior college transfer and a host of inexperienced but talented players. Yet, there is plenty of reason to believe turnover won’t upend the most-productive position on the Badgers defense.
State of the Position: Deep
Yes, the Badgers replace both starting outside linebackers. But, just as the likes of JJ Watt, Vince Biegel, Leon Jacobs and Garrett Dooley have done in the past, this group of outside linebackers are expected to not miss a beat.
Andrew Van Ginkel got plenty of playing time last season, and comes in as a player to watch nationally, not jus on Wisconsin’s internal radar. He was eighth on the team with 39 total tackles, was second on the team in sacks (6.5) and his two interceptions was good enough for second on the team as well.
His potential partner in crime on the outside is Zack Baun, whom the coaching staff has been raving about since he arrived on campus in 2016. Last year was lost thanks to a foot injury and he appears to be jumping right back in to the mix this year.
Depth is hardly a concern for the inside positions, with 1st team All-American T.J. Edwards returning and Ryan Connelly back next to him. There’s also veteran and productive Chris Orr in the mix and up and coming names like Griffin Grady, Mason Stokke and Mike Maskalunas in the pipeline. In fact, some on the coaching staff believe they have as many as six players who could easily start in the mix at inside linebacker.
Biggest Question: Who’s Next?
Yes, we are looking beyond 2018 here, but it is still relevant to this season. Wisconsin will have to replace three starters overall and make no mistake, the coaching staff will be intensely watching film on the reserves in the offseason.
The fact of the matter is, UW has to evaluate the play on the field from its reserves in 2018 to really get a measure of who can fill in the big shoes of Edwards and Connelly on the inside and Van Ginkel on the outside. While Orr seems an obvious replacement inside, names like Grady and Stokke have battled hard in camps this season and could also be in line for starting minutes.
On the outside, things seem a bit murkier. There really isn’t a set pecking order amongst a group that is light on experience in 2018. So, if there’s a bit of intrigue, look at the backups on the outside to be that for the Badgers heading in to the season and even early on. Either way, we aren’t talking about serious questions to any of the four starting positions as fall camp gets in full swing.
It certainly is a nice problem to have and a big help to 2018 if anyone goes down to injury. Dare we say, UW’s in an enviable position of being able to survive just about any level of injury and have players capable of making an equal impact? I know a few (or 13) other programs that would love to have UW’s issue heading in to 2018.
OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel, Christian Bell
ILB: T.J. Edwards, Mason Stokke
ILB: Ryan Connelly, Chris Orr
OLB: Zack Baun, Tyler Johnson