For the past three seasons under the direction of Dave Aranda, the Wisconsin Badgers defense has preformed at incredibly high levels. The hyper-aggressive defense was led by the linebackers, which Aranada oversaw as position coach. The numbers bear out an un-paralleled three year run that had opposing quaterbacks shell shocked.
Even though Aranda has moved on, the cupboard is hardly bare. Wisconsin returns three of four starters at linebacker, in addition to several other players that saw consistent playing time last season.
Vince Biegel’s decision to return for his senior season was a huge win for the Badgers, as he would almost certainly have been selected in the 2016 NFL draft. His wild-child, aggressive play epitomizes the disruption the Badgers attempt to create defensively. Biegel has made his name on rushing the quarterback, so his decision to return likely means he wants to prove he is just as capable in coverage and improve his draft stock.
Inside, the Badgers are set to return two solid players in T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr. Both Edwards and Orr earned starting jobs last year as freshmen and showed a nose for getting to the ball carrier. Edwards led the team in tackles with 84, an incredible feat for a freshman starter. Orr finished sixth with 46 tackles despite missing three games due to injury.
The biggest question mark will be who plays opposite Biegel on the outside. Jack Cichy is certainly a leading candidate. Cichy made a name for himself moving inside for a few games in placed of Orr. In the Holiday Bowl against USC, he turned in one of the more amazing sequences in Badger football history with back-to-back-to-back sacks.
Yet now that spring practices are underway, it appears T.J. Watt will be given the first shot at the other starting spot outside. Watt also showed flashes of disruption in a more limited role last season. He has battled injuries for much of his first two season in Madison, but seemed to find his stride in 2015 after finally getting healthy.
Regardless of whom ends up starting, the Badgers' linebackers will no doubt end up as another standout position for the defense. The combination of tackling machines in Edwards and Orr, with Biegel, Cichy and Watt set to bring pressure off the edge, will be a lot to handle for opposing offenses.
Leaders at position (2015 stats)
T.J. Edwards: 84 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss
Joe Schobert: 79 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 1 interception
Vince Biegel: 66 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8 sacks,
Jack Cichy: 60 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks
Chris Orr: 46 tackles, 2 tackles for loss
Biegel (RS SR), Cichy (RS JR), Edwards (RS SO), Orr (FR), TJ Watt (RS JR), Keelon Brookins (RS JR), Ryan Connelly (RS SO), Ty DeForest (RS FR), Nick Thomas (RS FR), Zach Baun (RS FR)
Schobert (graduated), Leon Jacobs (switched to fullback)
Additions to position
Dallas Jeanty (FR – early enrollee)
X-factor: T.J. Watt/Jack Cichy
Much will be made about who "wins" the starting outside linebacker role. But the truth is that both Watt and Cichy will see a lot of playing time. Both have shown a knack for rushing the quarterback, which is the money-making skill for outside linebacker.
Still, someone will need to demonstrate the ability to be an every-down player. The 2016 schedule will be a gauntlet of high-powered offenses. More than just splash plays will be needed in order shut down the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and LSU.