Wisconsin Spring Football: Badgers Have Multiple Options at Outside Linebacker

Sophomore Jesse Hayes is among a group of linemen moving back to play linebacker this season. - Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Even in the wake of David Gilbert leaving the program, the Badgers remain confident their linebacking corps can adapt to first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 system.

As the news of David Gilbert's departure from the Wisconsin football program begins to set in, the reality is that a starting spot at outside linebacker is up for grabs.

And while Gilbert's decision does open the door for someone else to snag a starting spot this season, his teammates would rather have had Gilbert ready to play in the fall.

"I don't think there are any guys who are looking at David leaving as a positive thing or as an opportunity," fifth-year senior linebacker Tyler Dippel said. "It's a detriment to the team; it's bad that we're losing a guy that gave us so much. But, honestly he's done all he can.

"Obviously yes, new positions open up and it gives guys opportunities. But right now, we're kind of more mourning the loss of a good friend."

Other than Gilbert's outside linebacker spot, the three other linebacker spots appear solidified with Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong playing in the middle -- assuming Armstrong will be able to come back from shoulder surgery -- and Brendan Kelly moving from the defensive line to take the opposite outside spot.

Dippel looked to be the early front-runner to back up Gilbert early in the spring as he received a lot of the reps there, but more players have since begun stepping up to make a run for the spot.

Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dave Aranda says there are a few guys in particular that have impressed him lately.

"I don't know if we have [a front-runner for the position] yet," Aranda said. "But, the latest guys to make moves have been Jesse [Hayes] and have been Joe [Schobert]. But that stuff's day to day and that's what's great about it. It's competing everyday you come out, you're ready to compete. Vince [Biegel] and Nick [Hill] are all on that same thought and they're competing hard and it's going to be interesting to see how it ends up."

A challenge for some of those options like Dippel and Hayes, who have converted from the defensive line where they had their hand in the ground every play, is confronting the amount of pass coverage that outside linebackers are responsible for in Aranda's 3-4 system.

"Going from D-end where you never really have to worry about coverage except for a handful of blitzes in your entire career, you have to worry about coverage on every play now," Dippel said. "I think that's the biggest adjustment. Learning coverage, where to put your eyes -- it's all a feel thing. Especially for guys like me and Jesse Hayes who played with our hand in the dirt, now we're up and now we have to worry about coverage, but that's the biggest thing to learn I feel like.

"As for when the run things come into play, it comes right back to you, it's natural. It's just like playing D-end."

One player looking to make a run at a starting spot this fall and someone who Aranda mentioned has stepped up this spring is redshirt freshman linebacker Vince Biegel. Biegel came to Wisconsin with high expectations to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Rocky, who played linebacker at BYU.

With a lean, 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, Biegel is one of the biggest players vying for the linebacker spot, yet he's athletic enough to keep up with Aranda's face-paced, blitz-heavy system.

With his size and athleticism, Biegel makes for a legitimate run-stopper and has the experience of dropping into coverage while playing at Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

"I think [playing pass coverage] is in my benefit," Biegel said. "I played some coverage in high school and I played some coverage at linebacker in a 4-3 last year, so I think I can bring a pass rush while also dropping in coverage and covering guys and be that hybrid type of a player for our team. At the end of the day I want to come out here and help our team out anyway I can and be a starter for this team."

No matter who Aranda ultimately pegs to start at outside linebacker, he knows what he wants from that position and what type of play it will take to secure that starting spot come fall.

"Consistent, can set the edge on defense, can rush the passer, is agile enough to cover a back or a tight end in the flat," Aranda said of the ideal characteristics he is looking for. "A guy that we can consistently count on to be where he needs to be, so that we can play with 11 and not have to play with 10."

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