MADISON — In a welcomed sign, Zack Baun returned to the field for the first two weeks of camp for the Wisconsin Badgers, though he is missing what became a vital part of his recovery last season.
That would be one screw, which found a temporary home in his left foot while recovering from the injury.
“No more hardware. No more. I can go through metal detectors,” Baun joked with reporters on March 22.
That screw was removed just a few weeks before spring practices started up for Baun and the Badgers, but what about the scooter he used to move around with during the recovery process?
“I threw it,” Baun said.
Now back on the field and participating in Wisconsin’s spring practices, Baun looks to make an impact during the 2018 season while hoping to make up for lost time. It appears the ‘backer has been full-go since spring ball started on March 13 and is continuing to hone his craft at one of Wisconsin’s edge positions.
“It feels good. No, I’m doing everything. A little soreness after practice but that happens,” Baun said. “A lot of rust I’m shaking off, getting back into the flow of things, with plays, different techniques. I’ve been in the weight room keeping my strength, so that’s not a problem.”
His position mate, Andrew Van Ginkel, sees the progress already through the six practices, four of which have been open to the media.
“You can tell that he’s been away from football for a while, but each practice, he’s out here. He continues to get better,” Van Ginkel, who at times has worked opposite Baun during the spring, said last week. “He’s always improving and working on his weaknesses and how he can improve. I say from the first practice, he’s really come a long way and I can see him to continue to grow and learn from what he’s been doing.”
Baun could have also contributed at outside linebacker last year like Van Ginkel, but the Brown Deer. Wis., native suffered a left-foot injury during fall camp that ended up costing him his entire redshirt sophomore campaign on what he described as a “a fluke incident.”
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in on the play actually,” Baun said, “but I was pulling the running back off the pile, and then he came back on me and my foot got caught underneath the pile and just kind of got squished, but yeah, that’s how it happened.”
Baun didn't immediately know that the injury would cost him the season.
“I had to get MRIs and what not, and then eventually,” Baun said, “it was like the bones were just displaced by just millimeters that it had to get surgery.”
Baun would have likely joined Van Ginkel in a rotation with Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, both of whom are now looking to hear their names called in the NFL Draft in late April.
Walk-on Tyler Johnson stepped up at times to help fill the void, but there was disappointment about missing significant playing time on the field.
“It just sucks,” Baun said. “You know you’re going to contribute and you know it’s your year. You’ve waited so long, and now the opportunity just gets taken from you by a few millimeters, like I said earlier. But yeah, it sucks. It’s not a position I would want anyone else to be in.”
Baun told B5Q back in late December before Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win that he started running at that time and expected to be ready for spring ball.
He hit that goal, though he had a procedure weeks prior to spring practice to remove that foreign object from his body for good.
“I had another surgery just like three weeks before spring ball to get the screw taken out that I had put in, and the recovery for that was like three weeks,” Baun said. “I got the clear, I think, the week before spring ball.”
The 6’3, 230-pound Baun has played in 12 games in his Wisconsin career, all in 2016 as a reserve ‘backer behind Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt. He recorded 15 tackles (3.5 for loss) that season, including six tackles and a tackle for loss against Ohio State.
Listen to Zack around the 21-minute mark of last week’s Bucky’s 5th Podcast.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard wants to see Baun get his confidence back in a couple of ways at the position.
“We were excited about Zack last fall when we thought he was going to have a big role and be able to help this defense, and obviously an injury happens,” Leonhard said back on March 15. “It’s just getting that confidence—one, in the foot, getting the confidence that he’s healthy and he can do what he needs to do, and then two, just being comfortable again. You’re off the field for a while and you kind of feel like you’re out of it. Just kind of get back in that mix and gain confidence.
“He understands what we do. He was on the field two years ago, so we trusted him two years ago, and I expect him to make a big jump this spring just because he gets his legs back under him and just used to being around the guys again.”
For Baun, the objective for 2018 is clear.
“I’m trying to start. That’s my goal, really,” Baun said. “I’m trying to be a key guy on this defense, which I’ve been kind of waiting for and I’ve anticipated that coming in. Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel, the list goes on, but I feel like it’s finally my time and it should have been my time last year to be a contributor, but now it’s really time for me to lock it in.”
Baun acknowledged the physical differences between Dooley and Jacobs, who combined to register 21.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season.
UW officially lists Baun at 230 pounds, with Van Ginkel at 233. Baun believes he can hold up against the run and plans on continuing to get stronger through spring camp and into the fall sessions prior to the season starting, but knows he has to prove it to the coaching staff and his teammates.
“When you look at us last year with Garret Dooley and Leon, obviously they’re bigger guys, like 245-250[pound] bodies,” Baun said. “We’re definitely going to be a lot faster, different play-style than Leon and Garret, but I think we can make it happen in just a different way.”