MADISON—Garret Dooley believes it was sometime during the end of spring and into the second week of fall camp. Leon Jacobs remembers it showed during a Friday night scrimmage when three tackles for loss were recorded.
The “it” is when fellow outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, from the outside looking in, appeared to become more comfortable with the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense.
Still developing but now a vital part of the position group, Van Ginkel has shown his abilities on Jim Leonhard’s defense in Wisconsin’s first two wins.
“I think with Andrew he’s got the grasp of the playbook, he knows what he’s doing and now he’s able to go out there and play ball,” Dooley said on Tuesday. “He’s able to play fast, he doesn’t have to think, ‘OK this is what’s going to happen if they come out in this formation,’ that kind of stuff. He knows the plays. He can just go out there and play fast, and I think that’s kind of the key to being successful as a defense.”
Van Ginkel came to Madison in the winter from Iowa Western Community College, where he tallied 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 11 games last season. This after a 2015 campaign at South Dakota when he earned numerous accolades, including first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors and the conference’s Freshman of the Year award, after recording 18.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
He admitted it was sometime in the middle of fall camp that he started to think less and started to play.
“I just had to push everything to the side, especially during this fall camp, and just focus on football,” Van Ginkel said. “Focus on how I can get better and what I have to do to get better—whether it’d be talking with the coaches, perfecting my technique or just watching film on my own and just trying to perfect my craft.”
Through two games, Van Ginkel has registered eight tackles (tied for fifth on the team), two tackles for loss (tied for fourth on the team), and is one of six Badgers to record a sack.
Along with Dooley and Jacobs, the two redshirt seniors and starting outside linebackers on Wisconsin’s defense, the trio has combined to record three of the team’s six sacks and 8.5 of the defense’s 18 tackles for loss.
“I think he has a great understanding of the defense,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Van Ginkel. “He picked it up probably quicker than we even expected considering we were asking him to do some things he hasn’t done before. But just all three of those guys, Dooley came and played very well for us last year, played a lot of snaps. Leon’s obviously has played a lot of snaps, not necessarily at that position, but plays that high speed, high intensity and has done a great job for us.
“Andrew, once again, picked up the defense well and [is] very smooth, very fluid in rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage.”
Van Ginkel’s first sack as a Badger came in the third quarter of Wisconsin’s 31–14 win against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 9. On the Owls’ second possession of the third quarter, a 2nd-and-10 from their own 35, the outside linebacker—with video replay showing no lineman in front of him—saw quarterback Daniel Parr keep the ball.
“It was kind of a play-action, I saw him pull it so I just went after him,” Van Ginkel said. “Just did what I could, tried to get the ball loose but that didn’t happen. I saw him pull it so I went and tackled him.”
Van Ginkel has played well early on for Wisconsin, though like all players, there are those snaps and decisions where he’d like to have another opportunity. Head coach Paul Chryst said earlier this week that he has made some plays but on one in particular, Florida Atlantic was able to bounce outside and get a run outside of him.
“I was supposed to leverage him back in, and I took a shot at him and missed him,” Van Ginkel said. “You know that happens, and I learned from it because they ran that exact same play the next play, and I kept my leverage. You just got to learn from it and continue to move on.”
In the larger scheme, Wisconsin’s outside linebackers—and its defense overall—still have not had the opportunity to face a more pro-style offense that utilizes five-to-seven-step drops in its passing attack. Both Utah State and Florida Atlantic have used up-tempo offenses that attempt to weaken opposing units’ communication, chemistry, and conditioning to move the ball down the field.
That may change against BYU on Saturday, though it appears starting quarterback Tanner Mangum will not play for the Cougars due to injury.
That would leave sophomore Beau Hoge, son of former NFL fullback Merrill Hoge, to run offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s system. How much that changes with a new quarterback will only be known when the two teams take the field this weekend, but it could provide a better gauge of where the defense—and its ‘backers off the edge—are in terms of producing pressure that was seen last season with T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel.
“We like our guys. We like what they did in the spring and fall camp against our offense, which we see a lot,” Leonhard said. “In game, it’s still a little bit to-be-determined because of the offenses that we’ve played, but I think we’ve done a good job creating pressure. I think we’ve left some plays on the field as far as getting quarterbacks on the ground and things like that, but we feel good about where we’re at, and we know what we got to work on. We got a long way to go, but we feel confident in the guys that’ll get us there.”
Outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, who has mentored the likes of Joe Schobert, Watt, and Biegel into NFL draft picks, mentioned on National Signing Day in Februrary how the program would not have recruited Van Ginkel if it didn’t feel that he could contribute right away.
Flash forward seven months later: the 6’4, 234-pound is part of the rotation at outside linebacker. Van Ginkel’s progression from spring practices to now is apparent, with Jacobs noting how the redshirt junior was able to shed blocks on a couple of plays against Utah State and Florida Atlantic.
“I think the biggest thing with him is his aggressiveness and his physicality,” Jacobs said. “That’s improved the most from him. He’s always been shifty and always been a sharp player, but I think he’s gotten way more physical than in the spring.”
Aside from the plays that show up on the stat sheets, Van Ginkel has made an impact in other ways. Possibly the most notable includes him sprinting down the field and laying out a Utah State player with a key block during safety Joe Ferguson’s 99-yard interception return for a touchdown in the 59–10 season-opening win.
It’s still early in his Wisconsin career, but there is intriguing potential for the Rock Valley, Iowa, native.
“He’s a guy, that when he came here in the spring, made plays, and he did it in fall camp,” Chryst said. “I think he’s got that ability and so him, two games in, still a lot of growth to be had, but I really like having him out there.”