Since arriving in Madison in 2013, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dave Aranda has transformed the Wisconsin defensive philosophy.
The personnel change from 4-3 to 3-4 is clear-cut. A more nuanced change has been in mentality. Aranda’s "attack at all times" approach is a big transformation from "bend but don’t break" defenses of the past. Of course, as the linebackers coach in addition to his defensive coordinator responsibilities, Aranda utilizes linebackers to suit his aggressive, attacking schemes.
The stats back up Aranda’s aggressive approach. Sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries have all increased in the past two seasons compared to the Badgers defense seen from 2010-2012.
|Tackles for loss||93||64||78.5||78||85||66||76|
Sacks and tackles for loss are not a huge jump, but quarterback hurries are almost double the three previous seasons. Even more impressive is the manner in which the Badgers brought the pressure. Past Wisconsin defenses were heavily dependent on one extraordinary playmaker (hello, Chris Borland and J.J. Watt!). Under Aranda last season, all four starting linebackers had double-digit totals in tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Pretty impressive.
This group will be counted on for playmaking once again. Chevy Bad Boys ring leader, junior Vince Biegel, returns along with senior Joe Schobert at outside linebacker. Biegel and Schobert were instrumental in the pressure defense Aranda utilized, finishing first and third on the team in tackles for a loss, respectively. Biegel's unbridled enthusiasm and aggression wrecks havoc on opposing teams and occasionally pulls in teammates as collateral damage, according to senior safety Michael Caputo:
"I don't know how I want to celebrate with you when you make a good play because I don't know if you're going to head butt me or jump on me. I keep my distance from him when he makes a good play."
Schobert plays with more controlled aggression. His ability was never more clearly on display than in overtime of the Outback Bowl versus Auburn last season. Schobert made all three tackles (two for a loss and one for no gain) and forced Auburn into a long field goal miss. He also casually throws down monster dunks that send the whole team into hysterics.
Biegel and Schobert form a dynamic one-two punch and will be expected to improve upon last season when they were two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. Senior Jesse Hayes and sophomore Jack Cichy will, in all likelihood, fill in the two-deep for the Badgers' outside backers.
The inside linebacker spots are not quite as established. Junior Leon Jacobs and redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards emerged as the likely starters after spring practice, but neither has much experience playing insider linebacker.
Jacobs started out as a freshman playing on the outside after he spent a majority of his high school days playing basketball. Last season, he earned a start at inside linebacker against Illinois filling in for the injured Marcus Trotter. Jacobs finished with 12 tackles and proved more than capable playing inside. Not to be forgotten, one of Jacob’s first impressions in Madison was catching Melvin Gordon from behind after a long run during fall camp as a true freshman.
Much like Jacobs, Edwards has little experience at linebacker and has yet to step on the field as a college football player. Edwards played quarterback in high school and was only brought in on defense in spot duty or big games. Edwards used his redshirt season to focus solely on defense and was rewarded as the unquestioned breakout star during spring practice.
TJ Edwards showing in the spring game what we saw all spring. Don't sleep on him. #Badgers— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) April 25, 2015
ILB T.J. Edwards continued to stand out today. Two INTs and two sacks during the scrimmage portion of practice.— Jason Galloway (@Jason_Galloway) April 23, 2015
Again, just the spring game, but LBs TJ Edwards and Leon Jacobs acquitted themselves quite well. #Badgers— Dave Heller (@dave_heller) April 26, 2015
Sixteen practices in March and April are not the same as a Big Ten game in November, so there will definitely be a learning curve for Edwards in real game situations, but his early emergence will allow him to take a bulk of the first-team reps heading into fall camp. Without having to split time for evaluation, those extra first-team reps will be crucial for Edwards as he gains more comfort at linebacker.
Beyond the starting four, redshirt sophomore Keelon Brookins figures to see the field in certain packages. Brookins battled injuries early on in his career but has shown play-making ability when healthy. He was moved to inside linebacker in large part to address depth of concerns.
D'Cota Dixon, who made a case as a freshman last season to see playing time at inside linebacker before a shoulder injury sidelined him for most of the season, appears to be designated as a cornerback on the 2015 UW roster -- another position of depth concern.
If Dixon doesn't see time at inside linebacker, true freshmen and early enrollees Nick Thomas and Ty DeForest might see time in the two-deep. Five of the eight inside linebackers listen on the roster are true freshman, something to look at if injuries pile up in this corp.
Leaders at position (2014 stats)
Marcus Trotter: 93 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception
Derek Landisch: 84 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 1 interception
Vince Biegel: 56 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks
Joe Schobert: 69 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
Outside linebackers: Biegel (RS JR), Schobert (SR), Hayes (RS SR), Cichy (RS SO) and Ryan Connelly (RS FR)
Inside linebackers: Jacobs (JR), Edwards (RS FR) and Brookins (RS SO)
Landisch (graduated), Marcus Trotter (graduated), Michael Trotter (graduated), Sherad Cadogan (graduated), Josh Harrison (graduated) and Ben Ruechel (graduated)
Additions to position
Outside linebacker: Zack Baun (FR), Arrington Farrar (FR) and Tyler Johnson (FR)
Inside linebacker: DeForest (FR, early enrollee), Thomas (FR, early enrollee), Chris Orr (FR), Alec Ingold (FR) and Max Praschak (FR)
X-Factor: T.J. Edwards
The most inexperienced player among the linebackers, Edwards has the most to prove heading into the season. He has yet to take the field as a college player and the transition from high school football to college is always tough, let alone switching to a brand-new position.
Thus far, Edwards has impressed teammates and coaches with his willingness to learn and his commitment in the film room. Edwards will definitely be helped by having experienced play-makers Biegel and Schobert around to take off some pressure.
It is doubtful that any of the true freshmen will be counted on for regular playing time. 247Sports' Evan Flood noted on a BuckAround podcast that Chris Orr could be a possible overlooked candidate for early playing time. Orr was the leading tackler at national top 25 program DeSoto High School, a traditional powerhouse in Texas.
Additionally, both Thomas and Ty DeForest enrolled in January and have used the extra practice time to move into regular rotation on the second-team defense. Inside linebacker in particular is short on experience, so there is plenty of opportunity for someone to earn playing time.