The Wisconsin Badgers have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at the outside linebacker position since 2013 when they switched full time to the 3-4 base defense.
That was not the case in 2018. Redshirt senior Andrew Van Ginkel was injured for a bunch of the season, and as a whole, the position was underwhelming. Zack Baun returned from missing the entire 2017 season with a foot injury, and for the most part was solid. His best couple of games on the season were near the end, so fans should be hopeful he’s able to carry that momentum into the 2019 season.
With Van Ginkel gone, however, the other side at outside linebacker is up for grabs. Rising redshirt senior Tyler Johnson and redshirt junior Christian Bell will certainly be in the conversation. Johnson, a former walk-on from Menasha, Wis., has been a special teamer and has gotten snaps as a rotational/reserve outside linebacker. While he has not been a liability, certainly he has not shown the upside to be a difference maker.
Bell, an Alabama transfer and teammate of Bradrick Shaw’s in high school, saw some playing time last season as well, and listed at 6’4” and 247 pounds—he looks the part. However, it is also still to be seen with Bell that he is able to be a dynamic player for the Badgers.
Noah Burks, a rising redshirt-junior and incoming true freshman Spencer Lytle project to be the next up for playing time, along with rising redshirt-sophomore Izayah Green-May, who is still putting on weight as the Badgers still look to make him a pass rush specialist, though now still listed at 6’6” 223.
2018 statistical leaders
- Redshirt senior Andrew Van Ginkel: 60 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks (led team), seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one blocked kick
- Redshirt junior Zack Baun: 63 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries
Expectation No 1: Wisconsin will still be searching for a difference maker heading into 2020
Zack Baun is an above average athlete for the position, and he has continued to develop over his career, but he is the best of an average position group at the moment.
Lytle and Skyler Meyers will add some much needed depth and talent to the group, but Meyers in particular is still likely a year or two away from being ready to make legitimate contributions. According to 247Sports, Lytle had over 40 scholarship offers and picked Wisconsin over eventual national champion Clemson. I expect him to be in play to make the rotation, as he has enrolled in Madison early and will participate in spring practices.
Expectation No. 2: Pass rush production will be up over 2018
Now, don’t expect some major increase or anything, but I do expect the Badgers to be a better pass rushing unit in 2019. A lot of that will have to do with the outside linebackers.
Jim Leonhard is still only entering his third season as a defensive coordinator, and with basically the same pieces back at outside linebacker—sans Van Ginkel—I have a feeling Leonhard will have a better idea of how to generate some pressure from the outside without depending on overwhelming talent at the position.
Wisconsin has to continue to improve how they recruit the position, as outside linebacker is the quickest way to make this defense scary enough to compete for the College Football Playoff again.