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Wisconsin football preview: Vince Biegel leads deep, skilled group of linebackers into 2016

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Dave Aranda is gone, but the Badgers' talented linebackers remain.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers enter 2016 with an embarrassment of riches at linebacker. At least, to the extent the 2015 opening day starter at inside linebacker, Leon Jacobs, has moved to offense and Holiday Bowl MVP "3 Sack Jack" Cichy isn't locked in as a starter, with split time a very real possibility. Of course, Wisconsin can’t have nice things, and now last season's leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

On the heels of losing a returning starter and leading tackler to injury before the season starts, and with Joe Schobert doing Joe Schobert type things with the Cleveland Browns, it would be easy to cast a dire outlook on this group. But linebacker is one position where the Badgers have proven depth and plenty of young talent waiting in the wings.

The only real unknown for this group is the change in scheme and personality going from Dave Aranda to Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator. Aranda's accomplishments for linebackers in particular have been well documented; while the overall principles of the 3-4 scheme remain, Wilcox and staff have emphasized creating turnovers. The linebacker corps is stocked with experienced and talented players, so it is unlikely to cause any major issues. The difference will require some adjustment, as Vince Biegel told the Wisconsin State Journal in April.

"(Wilcox) only heightens that awareness and that value of getting turnovers," senior linebacker Vince Biegel said. "I think this spring, (Wilcox) has done a phenomenal job of teaching strips, teaching turnovers.

"We've had a phenomenal amount of turnovers this spring from the defensive backs all the way to the defensive linemen. I think those good habits we're building in the spring will really come into fruition in the fall — those good habits of not thinking about the ball, just reacting and getting those turnovers when we're going to need them in the fall."

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

Returning players

  • Vince Biegel (RS Sr.)
  • Jack Cichy (RS Jr.)
  • T.J. Edwards (RS So.)
  • Chris Orr (So.)
  • T.J. Watt (RS Jr.)
  • Garrett Dooley (RS Jr.)
  • Ryan Connelly (RS So.)
  • Nick Thomas (RS Fr.)
  • Ty DeForest (RS Fr.)
  • Zack Baun (RS Fr.)
  • Tyler Johnson (RS Fr.)
  • Max Praschak (RS Fr.)
  • Jake Whalen (RS Fr.)

Departing players

  • Joe Schobert (gradation)
  • Jesse Hayes (graduation)
  • Leon Jacobs (move to fullback)
  • Keelon Brookins (move to safety)
  • D'Cota Dixon (move to safety)

Additions to position

X-Factor: T.J. Watt

As noted in B5Q's spring preview, Watt and Cichy were expected to battle for the remaining outside linebacker spot. After a solid spring performance, Watt now appears to have secured the outside, with Cichy splitting time inside with Orr and Edwards.

Watt's ability to provide a secondary pass rush with be critical for the Badgers' defensive success. Last season, opposing teams were at odds trying to slow down the dual attack of Biegel and Schobert. This year, someone will need to emerge as a consistent threat opposite Biegel. Watt certainly has the name recognition, and flashed ability during spring practice.

Likely starters: T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel (Outside); Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards/Jack Cichy (Inside)

The linebackers will be led by Biegel, who turned down NFL overtures to return for his senior season in hopes of improving his draft position and giving the mullet one last go-around. While Biegel will continue his role as disruptor and general havoc-wrecker on the outside, inside, Edwards (once healthy) and Orr should provide the sideline-to-sideline tackling they displayed last season.

Opposite Biegel, Watt has emerged as the starter on the outside after standing out during spring and summer practices. With the performances Cichy turned in late last season and during the bowl game, the coaching staff must be over the moon with Watt's ability and potential. I suspect Cichy will provide a jack of all trades this season; he has the ability to change the dynamic at either inside or outside spots depending on the situation. Considering the unknown timeline of recovery for Edwards's ankle injury, Cichy could very well be the starter vs. LSU on Sept. 3.

With five legitimate Big Ten starting-caliber linebackers to choose from, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the corps. However, Nick Thomas and Ryan Connelly are two younger players who have shown promise at inside linebacker and could be first in line to see more playing time if Edwards's injury lingers. On the outside, Garett Dooley and Zack Baun appear to be next in line behind Biegel and Watt, and will likely have opportunities to provide a spark rushing the quarterback in certain situations.

As a staff, Wisconsin has focused on bringing in big and fast players to hold down the linebacker spots. An emphasis on speed has certainly been evident with position moves between safety and linebacker. Defensive coaches have made it clear linebackers at Wisconsin must be solid in pass coverage in addition to pass-rush and run-stopping abilities. The strategy has paid off, as Wisconsin's linebackers were recently ranked the fourth-best group in the country by Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman.

The linebackers are probably the most talented positional group top to bottom on the Wisconsin roster. No doubt they will need to turn in some big performances against the gauntlet of a schedule that awaits in 2016. The good news is they have the skill to handle it and we all get to watch it play out as the season unfolds.