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Wisconsin players to watch in 2017: OLBs Zack Baun and Christian Bell

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At a critical position, at least two players need to step up at outside linebacker in 2017.

Akron v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With the 2016 college football season now in the books, B5Q looks ahead to 2017 and a Wisconsin Badgers program building off its 11-win campaign. In the coming days, we’ll profile certain players who could be in line to play a significant role in what will be head coach Paul Chryst’s third year guiding UW.

Whether it’s a position group weakened by key departures, a player who transferred into Madison or just possibly needed an extra year of seasoning before contributing, these are our picks for Badgers that’ll “pop” in 2017.

Zack Baun and Christian Bell, OLBs

With the early departure of redshirt junior T.J. Watt and senior Vince Biegel exhausting his eligibility, outside linebacker has now become a position of intrigue this offseason for Wisconsin’s defense. Gone now are the team’s top two defenders in sacks (Watt 11.5, Biegel four).

The younger Watt, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection who was also honored with several All-American nods, led the team in tackles for loss with 15.5 and recorded 63 tackles, third on the team.

Biegel was the heart of a defense that ranked third in rush defense (98.8 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (15.6 points per game) and third-down conversion defense (27.9 percent), and seventh in total defense (301.4 yards per contest).

Redshirt junior Garret Dooley will return for his last year of eligibility and rolled into the rotation admirably with Watt and Biegel. He grew into the position during the 2016 season and wasn’t perfect, but tied for third in sacks (3.5) and fifth on the defense in tackles for loss (6.5).

That leaves the other side of the 3-4 scheme to worry about. The first name that pops up is redshirt freshman Zack Baun. The 6’3, 231-pound linebacker played in 12 of the 14 games this season and recorded 15 tackles, 3.5 for loss. Outside of Dooley, Baun has the most game experience at the position.

A former prep quarterback at Brown Deer, Baun contributed to 94 touchdowns in his high-school career and was named the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association. Baun showed promise this past season on the field after transitioning to outside linebacker in his redshirt campaign, recording a career-high six tackles (one for loss) against Ohio State on Oct. 15.

He has the build and the athleticism to be a thorn in opposing offensive tackles’ side, and with a solid spring and fall camp for 2017, could solidify his spot in the rotation at the very least.

B5Q’s Owen Riese believes Baun will likely be the starter at outside linebacker opposite Dooley, but there’s another name that’s intriguing in former Alabama commit Christian Bell.

A former prep teammate of running back Bradrick Shaw at Hoover High School in Birmingham, Ala., Bell transferred to UW after grayshirting with the Crimson Tide.

At 6’4, 247 pounds, his physical stature is comparable to Biegel and Watt, who both were between 6’4 and 6’5 and in the mid 240s. There isn’t much film on Bell due to the fact he accepted a grayshirt opportunity and had to sit out the 2016 season due to NCAA rules, but a couple of reports show his promise.

Badger247’s Evan Flood reported offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called out Bell as one of the players who shined during bowl preparation practices. On Dec. 23, head coach Paul Chryst mentioned to reporters that his transfer outside linebacker has “done a good job improving and working.”

BadgerNation.com’s Ben Worgull spoke with Bell in early December, with the young player noting he was “‘undefeated’ on scout team.” If he can continue his progression, he could slide into the rotation and provide depth with Biegel and Watt’s departure.

JUCO transfer Andrew Van Ginkel could be game-ready as well, but in Mike Lucas’ piece last week, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar mentioned Baun and an ascending walk-on who could fit the bill:

Tibesar sees the same things happening with outside linebackers Zack Baun and Tyler Johnson.

"He (Baun) has had a couple of nagging injuries, nothing major, that has kept him out at different times," Tibesar said. "But he's probably right where we hoped he would be at this point in time. He's a guy who can jump into the rotation like Garret did this year."

Tibesar indicated that Johnson had made "huge strides" from last season.

It's no secret that the Badgers take pride in being a developmental program.

"You want to see the guys who are returning take the next step in their game," Tibesar said. "If they were a role player, step up to become a contributor. If they were a contributor, step up to become a starter. If they were a starter, they need to ask, 'What are the things that I need to improve on?'"

Or, as Tibesar proposed, "How can I take my game to the next level?"