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With T.J. Watt gone, what’s next for Wisconsin at outside linebacker?

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Looking at the shape of the Badgers’ OLBs following Watt’s departure for the NFL.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Ohio State at Wisconsin
Redshirt freshman Zack Baun against Ohio State on Oct. 15.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So you just lost both starting linebackers and your best two defensive players, huh?

No worries, we’ve got you covered.

The Wisconsin Badgers smartly employed a rotation at the position throughout the season, so there are multiple players returning with experience at the position. Will I tell you they are as good as Vince Biegel or T.J. Watt? No. But they’ve been taught by them, along with the coaches, and will look to carry the tradition forward of impressive 3-4 outside linebackers in the Wisconsin scheme.

Departing: RS SR Vince Biegel (graduating), RS JR T.J. Watt (NFL draft)

Returning: RS JR Garrett Dooley, RS FR Zack Baun, RS FR Jake Whalen, FR Griffin Grady, RS FR Tyler Johnson, (current RS) FR Noah Burks, (current RS) Keldric Preston, RS FR Max Praschak

(Ed. note: Current freshman Griffin Grady is listed on the game notes roster as an outside linebacker, but was listed on Wisconsin’s depth chart as a second-team inside linebacker this season following injuries to Chris Orr and Jack Cichy.)

This may seem like a lot of guys, but in 3-4 defenses, typically the highest numbers at any particular position come at linebacker, either inside or outside. Dooley played a significant amount this season, starting the Michigan and Ohio State games in place of an injured Biegel. He registered 3.5 sacks as the Badgers’ third outside linebacker and will be firmly entrenched as a starter next season. Baun got a bit of time early in the season, rotating in place of Watt on the weak side. He registered six tackles against Ohio State and forced a fumble against Georgia State. He’s a very athletic player—a former prep quarterback at Brown Deer who contributed 94 touchdowns in 22 games and was named 2014 Offensive Player of the Year by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association—who will likely be the other starter next season.

Big Ten Championship - Penn State v Wisconsin
Junior Garret Dooley (No. 5) rushing the passer vs. Penn State on Dec. 3.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Whalen played in four games this season and saw a bit of time on special teams, but will likely be a part of the rotation next season. Grady (11 games) played a bit on special teams, and also saw some time as a reserve inside linebacker this season. The true freshman is obviously trusted by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, so he could see some time at either linebacker spot next season. After that, Johnson (seven games) and Praschak (seven and two games, respectively) are walk-ons, with Burks and Preston apparently redshirting.

Newcomers: RS FR Christian Bell (Alabama transfer), Andrew Van Ginkel (JuCo transfer), Izayah Green-May (Bolingbrook, Ill., early enrollee)

Christian Bell was a high-school teammate of running back Bradrick Shaw at Hoover High School in Alabama and after a grayshirt year with the Crimson Tide, he decided to transfer up north to join his friend Shaw at UW. He’s 6’4, 247 pounds, and will compete for a starting position at outside linebacker. Van Ginkel started his college career at South Dakota before transferring to Iowa Western Community College. The Badgers don’t normally target junior-college players, so when they announced this commitment it indicated the Badgers’ staff was anticipating Watt declaring early and they wanted to keep the recruiting cycles in sync. Green-May is listed at 6’5, 205 pounds on 247Sports, but he’s rumored to be around 6’6 now and he’ll likely redshirt. After picking Wisconsin over Michigan State, he is the long, lanky rusher the Badgers haven’t yet had in this scheme. Once he adds on some mass, he’ll likely play around the 235-to-240-pound range, and with that height, will still appear a bit slight. The coaching staff is extremely excited to get Green-May on campus in January.