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Opposite Andrew Van Ginkel, Wisconsin turns to Tyler Johnson, Zack Baun at outside linebacker

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Our next two Badgers to watch need to fill a hole in Wisconsin’s defense left by attrition.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Brigham Young Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are less than a month away from the Wisconsin Badgers starting up fall camp, and the 2018 edition of this team could continue to make its presence known not just in the Big Ten Conference but also in the College Football Playoff conversation.

As we count down the days until the pads and helmets are back on, this series is dedicated to the players fans should keep an eye on—regardless of if they’re already household names.

For the second consecutive season, Wisconsin will have to replace its starting outside linebackers. In 2017, Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs—both now on NFL rosters heading into training camp later this month—took over for T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, who will also be on NFL rosters heading into camp.

Additionally, former position coach Tim Tibesar is now Oregon State’s defensive coordinator, adding to the change swirling around Wisconsin’s edge rushers.

Andrew Van Ginkel exploded for the Badgers’ during the latter part of last season, but who will step up to complement him on the other side is a question that remains. The answer will likely come from redshirt juniors Tyler Johnson and Zack Baun.

Why Tyler Johnson and Zack Baun are worth watching in 2018

On a defense losing seven starters and two other significant contributors, those returning to this year’s unit will be called upon in important fashion. Van Ginkel is the main name at outside linebacker and showed game-changing ability in the final two contests of the season (see: interceptions against Ohio State and Miami in December).

Baun, a former in-state prep quarterback turned college outside ‘backer, likely would have contributed last season if not for the left foot injury he sustained during fall camp that eventually cost him his redshirt sophomore campaign. He played at times during the 2016 season, including a decent performance against Ohio State.

Baun returned this spring and appeared to play well before injuring that foot again in April, though he ditched the walking boot towards the end of camp. New outside linebackers coach Bobby April told reporters at the time that Baun’s injury “could have been much worse” and that he believes Baun will be ready for fall camp.

Pairing Van Ginkel and Baun would give the defense two longer, potentially faster players on the edge compared to Dooley and Jacobs last year. Johnson, who weighed 247 pounds according to the spring roster and is closer to the size and frame of his predecessors, emerged as the fourth player in the rotation. He played in all 14 games last season, including a strip sack in the win at Illinois.

This year will in all likelihood present another opportunity for the walk-on from Menasha to lock down a more solid status among key contributors under April.

“Tyler’s just been consistent over and over and over,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said in late April. “He did it last year and he flashed some playmaking ability for us, so we’ve liked what he’s done. Once again, it’s just kind of taking it to the next level as far as confidence in my opinion this spring.

“After that, it’s trying to find out who’s in that rotation and in what roles. Zack is always a guy that we’re excited about but leaves us wanting a little bit more, and a lot of it has to do with injuries and stuff he hasn’t necessarily been able to control.

Who else joins Johnson in supporting the group—perhaps Christian Bell, Noah Burks, or Arrington Farrar, who is moving to his third position in two years—will also be worth watching once fall camp opens.

“Christian and Noah and Arrington are guys that we feel like have earned the right to be in that conversation,” Leonhard said. “Can they be an every-down guy or are they a package type of player? We were able to get those guys a lot of reps this spring and just kind of test them and see where they’re at physically and mentally, and it’s going to be a big summer for them to take the next step and then fall camp, go in and just compete and see where things fall out for the season.”

As Baun told reporters during the spring, his goal this season is to start.

“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,” Baun said. “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.”