Coming off a promising spring practice season, junior Leon Jacobs hoped to build off the momentum heading into summer conditioning to, in his words, become "stronger, faster and bigger" physically in preparation for the upcoming season.
Jacobs is the only inside linebacker returning with experience at the position in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense, as he backed up departing seniors Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter last year. He flashed in his one start in 2014, replacing an injured Trotter -- registering 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against Illinois. When asked what he learned from the elder 'backers, Jacobs said the two impacted another aspect of the game he wanted to improve upon this summer: how he approached the mental aspects of the game and becoming more comfortable in the playbook.
"I just learned how to study more and what to study," the 6'2, 234-pound Jacobs said Sunday. "Even from guys like Ben Ruechel, learning why certain defenses like this, and I really learned how you blitz from a position on the field. So all around, my game as linebacker is to get better."
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Jacobs and redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards are expected to be the lead candidates to replace Landisch and Trotter as the starting interior linebackers and their productivity from 2014: a combined 177 combined tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. Though there is a relative greenness between the two spring standouts and the inside linebackers, there is great potential for a dynamic season with their athleticism and playmaking abilities.
Edwards asserted himself opposite Jacobs during spring practices with the first-team defense, as there were daily reports toward the end of spring practices of the converted high school quarterback making plays -- whether an interception here, some tackles for loss there, or sacking the quarterbacks.
That confidence is something Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst noted in his press conference on Sunday afternoon. He hopes Edwards builds on that and carries those strides over into the summer months. The 6'1, 238-pound linebacker acknowledged getting the reps on the field and in the film room helped him adjust in the spring from originally learning the outside linebacker position a season ago.
"The more time you spend up there, the more comfortable you're going to feel out here on the field," Edwards said during Wisconsin's media day on Sunday. "I learned that pretty shortly, so I'm glad. I'm going to keep get back up there and keep working hard."
"I think why T.J.'s so good is because he's coachable," Jacobs added. "A lot of players when they want to get coached, they have attitude, but he doesn't. He comes in and works every day. He understands that, and in the spring, it showed. He really bought out this spring. T.J., if he keeps on his high horse, the sky's the limit."
Along with Edwards and Jacobs, sophomore Keelon Brookins, early freshman enrollee Nick Thomas and senior transfer Kellen Jones appear to be in the running on the two-deep of Wisconsin's defensive depth chart at the position.
Jones stands at 6'0 and 230 pounds as the lone senior in the group. As a whole, six of UW's nine players listed at inside linebacker are either true or redshirt freshmen.
The fifth-year senior -- who also played at Oklahoma before heading to Clemson -- comes from a defense last year that ranked second among Division I teams in passing yards allowed (157.4 yards per game) and No. 1 in total defense (260.8 yards per game). Arriving in Madison a few days before fall camp, Jones is still catching up on the playbook but feels he can help the defense. Chryst said Sunday that Jones could help provide depth to the position.
"They (Clemson) like to have their linebackers go sideline to sideline, make the plays, so I feel this is a perfect fit," Jones said.
The other linebackers on the outside, senior Joe Schobert and junior Vince Biegel, are there for support. Schobert noted Sunday how Edwards and Jacobs both have the athletic ability to correct a wrong assignment on a play, and both he and Biegel know the reps in the fall will only further their knowledge of the defense and progression on the field.
"With Kellen Jones coming in, T.J. having a phenomenal spring, Leon having a phenomenal spring, I think the biggest thing is just molding those guys in coming to this fall camp and just getting better every single day," Biegel said.
"That's going to come with repetitions with not those guys, but collectively as a defense."
Aranda said Sunday the starting inside linebacker positions will go to the "best players." Through Tuesday's practice, Jacobs and Edwards still primarily worked with the first-team defense.
The key for Edwards and Jacobs, along with the rest of the position group, is to not just flash during certain situations.
"Being consistent in our approach and making plays from that group, that's going to be a challenge," Aranda said.
"To take it one step further from where it's been to be every down, down it, down out, every quarter, every game that they're playing at the highest level possible. They have that in them, and it's our job as coaches to push them to get that out of them."
That consistency will yield trust from their teammates, which is a goal Edwards hopes the inside linebackers can achieve in 2015.
"I think a big thing for us is we want to be able to be counted on," Edwards said, "because we're young guys and we have to earn that respect from the team."