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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Outside linebackers intriguing, but mostly unproven

Who will replace the production on the edge?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

[Update, Mar. 17: Positions, heights and weights are now updated from the released 2017 spring roster from the first spring practice, and position overviews have been revised to align with information published on UWBadgers.com on Mar. 13.]

Over two months have passed since the Wisconsin Badgers closed out their 2016 season with a 24-16 win over Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. That means it’s time for spring football, which starts on March 14 for UW players and coaches.

Gone are Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, who contributed 15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss for Wisconsin last season. The rest of the outside linebackers, outside of would-be senior Garret Dooley—and to a degree Zack Baun, who also found playing time in 2016—are unproven commodities at the Big Ten level. Who will step up in this group underneath position coach Tim Tibesar?

Tibesar has shown the past two seasons that he can develop and prepare Watt, Dooley and Baun for game-time action when incumbents like Biegel and Joe Schobert needed time off the field. Alabama transfer Christian Bell, JUCO transfer Andrew Van Ginkel and a list of backers, all who won’t be older than redshirt sophomores, will vie for reps and opportunities.

Note: Height and weight measurements below are from UWBadgers.com, either from the 2017 roster or National Signing Day.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Outside Linebackers

Outside Linebacker 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Outside Linebacker 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Garret Dooley R-SR 6'3 250 Rochester, Ill.
Zack Baun R-SO 6'3 222 Brown Deer, Wis.
Andrew Van Ginkel R-JR 6'4 230 Rock Valley, Ia.
Christian Bell R-FR 6'4 246 Birmingham, Ala.
Max Praschak R-SO 6'2 203 Somerset, Wis.
Jake Whalen R-SO 6'1 242 Wausau, Wis.
Noah Burks R-FR 6'2 240 Carmel, Ind.
Keldric Preston R-FR 6'4 254 Tampa, Fla.
Hegeman Tiedt R-FR 6'4 235 Burlington, Wis.
Izayah Green-May FR 6'6 211 Bollingbrook, Ill.

2016 Leaders

T.J. Watt: 63 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss (led team), 11.5 sacks (led team), 13 quarterback hurries (led team), one interception return for touchdown

Vince Biegel: 44 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks, seven quarterback hurries

Garret Dooley: 40 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks

Key Departures

Vince Biegel (eligibility)

T.J. Watt (declared early for NFL Draft)

Key Additions for 2017

Andrew Van Ginkel, Izayah Green-May (midyear enrollees)

Position Overview

This is one of the big, if not the biggest, question marks on this defense heading into 2017—not just due to unknown depth, but the production seen with this position group that will not return. Despite most of these outside linebackers being unproven at the Big Ten level, that’s not to say there is’t talent and potential—and we’ve seen what Tibesar can do in molding players.

Dooley was the surprise for this group, as he stepped up and played well this past season when Biegel was lost due to injury for the Michigan and Ohio State games. UWBadgers.com’s Mike Lucas noted how the Rochester, Ill., native wants to “get bigger, faster, stronger.” He’ll have to when continuing to set the edge and being the focus of teams trying to run the read option in his direction.

Baun was the team’s fourth outside linebacker last season, recording 15 tackles (3.5 for loss), though a left leg injury cost him two games. He performed well against a big-time opponent in Ohio State on Oct. 15, when he registered six tackles in the overtime loss. The Brown Deer, Wis., native, a former first-team all-state prep quarterback and WFCA Offensive Player of the Year in 2014, could be poised for a big year with his athleticism and potential.

Behind them, Bell and Van Ginkel can use the spring sessions to springboard their opportunities in fall camp. Bell, a former four-star recruit per ESPN and high three-star recruit according to 247 Sports, Rivals and Scout, hails from the same high school as fellow Hoover product, running back Bradrick Shaw. At 6’4, 247 pounds, he has the ideal size you’d like in a 3-4 outside linebacker and should be ready to showcase his abilities after sitting out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Van Ginkel transferred to Iowa Western Community College last year, when he recorded 50 tackles (13 for loss) and 3.5 sacks. This after earning first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors and the conference’s freshman of the year award in 2015 at South Dakota, in a redshirt freshman campaign that boasted 18.5 tackles for loss along with nine sacks.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t have gone and recruited him and brought him in if we didn’t think that he was going to be a player that could contribute to our program right away,” Tibesar said on National Signing Day. “He really actually fills a void because we don’t have anyone in the outside linebacker room that’s in his class. We have Garret Dooley now, who’s going to be the lone senior class with T.J. Watt leaving early, and there’s no one in the junior class. Then we have Zack Baun, Tyler Johnson and Max Praschak in that next class. He kind of fills that open spot already in that class between the juniors and the sophomores in the class.”

Tibesar mentioned to Lucas in January that Johnson, a walk-on who himself enrolled early two seasons ago, has made “huge strides” from 2015. His contributions and progression would be a welcomed sight. However, he moved to inside linebacker this spring. Both Johnson and sophomore Griffin Grady officially moved inside according to the updated roster released (the latter cracking the two-deep at that position last year), while redshirt sophomore Jake Whalen moved to fullback.

There’s also the likes of Praschak, who played in two games last season. The in-state product will be redshirt sophomores like Baun, and heading into his third year in Madison, could use these 15 spring practices to make in roads for a bigger role in 2017.

Noah Burks and Keldric Preston came to Wisconsin with intriguing skill sets but redshirted in 2016. Burks earned first-team all-state honors in Indiana and was a four-star recruit per Rivals. Preston, with great size coming into the program, chose the Badgers over the likes of Penn State and Miami.

There are increased variables from last year’s group of outside linebackers, with relative inexperience in FBS action fully noted—but the battle to build momentum to fall camp starts now. As Tibesar told UWBadgers.com’s Mike Lucas in January:

"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?"