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2014 Wisconsin football preview: Badgers linebackers begin post-Chris Borland era

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Chris Borland is finally, sadly, gone. How will the Badgers' linebackers fill that incredible void?

Derek Landisch returns as Wisconsin's top senior linebacker.
Derek Landisch returns as Wisconsin's top senior linebacker.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There appears to be a similar theme between our defensive line preview and this linebacker preview, and while some might think the theme is "OHMYGODWEAREREPLACINGSEVENSTARTERSINOURFRONTSEVENOHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD," I choose to look at the theme as just "change." Hey, if it worked for ol' Barry Obams in the Presidential election, it can work for the Wisconsin defense too.

The Badgers are looking to replace all four of their starters (Da Gawd Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Conor O'Neill and Brendan Kelly) from last season's first foray into Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense, but the cupboard isn't completely bare.

There are players with (limited) starting experience, and, like the rest of the defense, there are oodles of potential in this group. What the linebacking corps is currently lacking in experience and career total tackles, it will be making up with speed and athleticism, plus other sweet buzzwords that are rarely applied to a Big Ten defense (that's for any LSU bros reading our previews in advance of the opening game.) Starting outside linebacker Joe Schobert mentioned in an interview with Jake at media day that the linebackers are "trying to be more fluid" and "bring pressure from a lot of different places" this year.

First of all, Joe, well done on hitting on all the major training camp storylines for every team ("we're going to attack more this year!" -- every coach in football before the season starts), but looking at the skill set of the linebackers the Badgers have, it's hard to see them not attacking more. They are more athletic and they should get to the quarterback/ball carrier more.

Here are the projected starters from Jake and Luke's post-spring defensive breakdown, which looks exactly the same heading into Monday's fall camp.

DEPTH CHART: LINEBACKERS
YEAR HT WT GP/GS HOMETOWN
OLB Joe Schobert JR 6-2 240 21/1 Waukesha, WI
ILB Marcus Trotter RS SR 6-0 226 14/1 Racine, WI
ILB Derek Landisch SR 6-0 231 38/3 Nashotah, WI
OLB Vince Biegel RS SO 6-4 244 15/2 Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Key reserves: SO Leon Jacobs , RS JR Jesse Hayes, RS SR Michael Trotter, RS SR Sherard Cadogan
The rest: RS SR Josh Harrison, RS SR Ben Ruechel, SO Jack Cichy, FR Chasen Andersen, FR Matt Austin, FR Ben Fischer, FR Zander Neuville, FR Ryan Connelly, FR TJ Edwards, FR Justin Schweitzer

Most to prove

Marcus Trotter is the linebacker with the most to prove. Remember Chris Borland? You know, from last season and the couple of seasons before that? Trotter is one of the guys tabbed to play Borland's "mac" inside linebacker position this year. Now, head coach Gary Andersen is on record saying something to the tune of "not one guy can replace the production level of a Chris Borland," but we know that one guy has to literally take his place on the field and that one guy is Marcus Trotter. Since coming to UW as a preferred walk-on back in 2010 with his twin brother Michael, Marcus has had to prove himself. I mean, it has got to be tough when your twin brother gets a scholarship offer and you don't. You have the same genetic makeup and the ability to communicate telepathically (note: I don't really do science) with your twin, and you don't get a scholly, too? He was also originally told by this guy that he would have to start off at fullback and then maybe he'd get a chance at linebacker.

Basically it has been an uphill battle for Marcus ever since he decided to attend Wisconsin, so why should he have to stop proving himself now? Last year against Iowa, Marcus started for the injured Borland and recorded nine tackles (1.5 for loss), so there is clearly some talent there. As a redshirt senior, Marcus should be comfortable being a leader and as a three time Academic All-Big Ten nerd, he is clearly smart enough to make calls for the defense on the field. No one dude is going to replace Borland's production -- this we know -- but a smart and experienced replacement is a good start.

X-factor

I've heard a fairly common refrain among Badger fans around my apartment the last two years, which is, "the Badgers need to get more pressure on the quarterback." A pressured quarterback makes mistakes, and mistakes lead to turnovers. In 2012, Wisconsin was tied for last in the Big Ten with Indiana, forcing 1.1 turnovers per game. In 2013, the Badgers were tied with Minnesota for eighth in the conference with 1.5 TO/G. This past year, the UW defense collected 26 sacks (down from 31 in 2012) on the season, good for 60th-best in the country and sixth-best in the conference (eighth if you include Rutgers and Maryland).

While Wisconsin's defense has been stellar these past few years, oftentimes carrying the team for multiple games, an inexperienced unit is going to need to force more turnovers to try and make their transition from backups to starters easier. Two guys who can make that happen are Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. The 3-4 defense is designed so that outside linebackers make plays in the backfield. In limited action last year, these two combined for three sacks and a couple of hurries. With expanded playing time, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is going to be looking for these two to provide pressure off the edge that will hopefully turn into the aforementioned mistakes.

Schobert said in his interview with Jake:

"A big emphasis is to be a lot of playmakers, get in the passing lanes, get strips, get rips, get on the ball if it's on the ground. Me and Vince want to get a lot of sacks coming off the edge."

Rest of the position group

We haven't even mentioned the most experienced returning linebacker yet, so, uhhhh, hi, Derek Landisch! He was eighth on the team in tackles last year with 33 (two for loss) and along with Marcus Trotter will be leading the linebacking corps week in and week out.

Leon Jacobs has practiced at just about every position on the field (maybe a darkhorse for the starting quarterback job???) but seems to finally have settled in as Schobert's backup at the "field" outside linebacker spot. He is another guy that can get after the passer and should be looked for as a sub on 3rd-and-longs.

Redshirt senior walk-on Ben Ruechel had an excellent spring according to Aranda, and could be in line to see time at inside linebacker.

Marcus' brother, Michael, has been moved to outside linebacker (after coming to UW as a safety) and brings speed and good coverage instincts to a unit that lacks a bit of the second trait.

Jesse Hayes came in as a 4-3 defensive end, redshirted a year, got hurt the next year, switched positions to outside linebacker last year, but didn't play a down. He comes into this season with a full year of the 3-4 under his belt and hopefully a sense of urgency to make some plays after having some setbacks in his career.

Quotable

"If we can get a dime LB with speed and everything else on 3rd-and-8 to cover that guy, I think he could do it, so D'Cota is going to do that for us." -- Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda

It's statements like this that make me excited for the future of Wisconsin football. Aranda isn't afraid to try out some "wacky" ideas. D'Cota Dixon is a true freshman corner out of Florida, but here he is being talked about as a potential dime-package linebacker. He's fast enough to cover a running back out of the backfield but also stout enough to bring him down in the open field. Now if the coaching staff would just listen to me and try Jacobs at quarterback...

Did you know?

Leon Jacobs had only played two years of organized football before enrolling at Wisconsin! That's still two more than me and one more than "Air Bud: Golden Receiver."