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Wisconsin football: linebackers 2019 review and 2020 preview

The Badgers reloaded at linebacker in 2019, and they’ll have to do the same in 2020.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next week or so, we here at B5Q are going to run through every position group on the Wisconsin Badgers football team and give you a recap of how they did in the 2019 season. In the same damn post we are also going to give you a preview of what we think 2020 is going to look like! Without further ado, here is your review/preview of the Wisconsin linebackers.

2019 statistical leaders

  • Jack Sanborn- 80 total tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 1 fumble recovered, 1 fumble forced
  • Chris Orr - 78 total tackles, 14.0 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovered, 2 fumbles forced
  • Zack Baun - 75 total tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 12.5 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 defensive touchdown
  • Noah Burks - 36 total tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 defensive touchdown
  • Leo Chenal - 17 total tackles, 1.0 TFL

2020 returning statistical leaders

  • Chris Orr and Zack Baun are graduated, and will likely be playing on Sundays next season.
  • Jack Sanborn is returning, and will likely start in the middle with Leo Chenal.
  • Noah Burks will likely be one of the starting outside linebackers.
  • Christian Bell (grad transfer) and Tyler Johnson (graduation) are also gone.
  • Look for Spencer Lytle, Izayah Green-May and Jaylan Franklin to compete for that other outside linebacker position.

2019 linebackers overview

The Badgers defense always has (since they switched to the 3-4 in 2013) and always will be driven by the play of their linebackers; it’s simply the structure of the defense.

The Badgers have had stellar inside linebacker play for seemingly the last six or seven years, and that continued with Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn. Orr finally received his full-time opportunity after essentially losing it when he tore his ACL on the first play of the 2016 season. He waited in the wings and prepared for his turn behind T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, and made the most of it with 78 tackles and 11.5 sacks, an insane number for an inside linebacker. Orr’s top skill is his blitzing ability, something that surely makes defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard smile.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Jack Sanborn showed promise, being in the two-deep with Orr as a true freshman. As a sophomore, he didn’t disappoint, as he led the team with 80 tackles and had an important interception in the Rose Bowl. He’ll be an impact player moving forward, likely the next two years.

Nearly as crucial to the 3-4 defense’s success, the outside linebackers took a major step in the right direction in 2019 after a rare step down in 2018. Redshirt senior Zack Baun took complete advantage of his last opportunity in the cardinal and white, with 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. When the Badgers needed a big play on defense, it was seemingly always Baun who was there to make it. Dynamic play makers are paramount on the outside of a 3-4 scheme, and Baun will be making an NFL team happy in the near future.

While Baun received the majority of the accolades, deservedly so, the other contributors were noteworthy as well. Noah Burks, Christian Bell, Tyler Johnson, Izayah Green-May and Jaylan Franklin all received snaps at the other outside linebacker spot, and combined for 53 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, an interception, and a defensive touchdown. Burks had the majority of those stats, but every one of those guys recorded a sack and a tackle for loss. Disruption matters, and this spot can be pointed to as a personification of the “next man up” mantra Wisconsin uses.

2020 linebackers preview

Wisconsin continues to arguably recruit the linebacker position as well as any position on their roster, offensive line included.

I think three spots are probably locked up, barring a large change or injury/suspension/something of that nature. Noah Burks should likely start at one of the outside linebacker positions. Burks will be a redshirt senior, and is the type of guy who has had above average seasons for the Badgers during this stage of their career.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 30 Wisconsin at USF Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Inside, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are likely going to start next to each other for the next two years. Sanborn is a good athlete and made plays all over the field this season, and there’s no reason that won’t continue for the next two years of his career. Chenal, following a similar career arc to Sanborn, was on the two deep as a true freshman, and played special teams and late in games. I fully expect him to step into this starting role and not let it go for the next two to three seasons.

The other outside linebacker position will be interesting to watch. Izayah Green-May started the season across from Zack Baun, and I’d suspect he’ll be next in line to start at the other outside linebacker position. Jaylan Franklin also saw some time early in the year. Spencer Lytle, who will be a redshirt freshman, will also be in the conversation after his redshirt season. Lytle had over 40 scholarship offers coming out of high school, he’ll be another top contender to start at outside linebacker.

Name to watch for 2020

I think that Leo Chenal is the low hanging fruit answer here, but it’s also the correct one. He’s a beast physically, coming into Madison last January at 245 pounds as a high school senior. He’s physically ready to compete and thrive in the Big Ten, something that isn’t often said of 18-19 year olds.

Kent State v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

He’s athletic enough to be a pain for defenses, and his presence inside will remind Badger fans of T.J. Edwards. A thumper in the middle who can move well enough to get to the outside.

2020 spring depth chart projection (2020 eligibility)

  • Outside linebacker (field): Noah Burks, Spencer Lytle
  • Inside linebacker: Jack Sanborn, Mike Maskalunas
  • Inside linebacker: Leo Chenal, Maema Njongmeta
  • Outside linebacker (boundary): Izayah Green-May, Jaylan Franklin