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Wisconsin football: the linebackers are young, talented and ready to prove themselves

Even the veterans at linebacker haven’t played in THAT many games, so how are things looking after losing Zack Baun and Chris Orr?

Jack Sanborn is ready to lead the ILB group this season.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past, oh I don’t know, half decade or so, the Wisconsin Badgers have produced quality linebackers that have gone on to the NFL. T.J. Watt, Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards, Zack Baun, Jack Cichy, Andrew Van Ginkel, Chris Orr, Joe Schobert...well, you get the idea. The funny thing about some of these guys is that they did most of their damage in one big season.

The model for linebacker success at UW has been a “next man up” deal. Once the guy ahead of you graduates and gets picked in the NFL Draft, well...guess what, you’re up next, pal! Outside linebackers coach Bobby April said as much on Thursday when talking to the media and inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said he’s “never felt like we’ve had a tremendous amount of depth” at his position since he’s been the coach.

That’s kind of a wild attitude to have for a pair of guys who coach two of the most successful units on the team.

Joining the coaches on a Zoom call with the media on Thursday were the two veteran leaders of the linebacker groups: senior OLB Noah Burks and junior ILB Jack Sanborn.

Burks is a guy who has taken the typical path that the linebackers ahead of him laid out: redshirt and bide your time before bursting onto the scene and getting drafted. That last part is purely hypothetical now because, while Burks had a solid season last year, no one was telling him to leave school early. He was overshadowed by Baun’s production and technically wasn’t even the starter from Week 1.

Sanborn played in a bunch of games his freshman year, and impressed, and hasn’t taken a redshirt year. As a true sophomore last year he led the team in tackles and heading into this season he has been named to a number of award watch lists.

One thing that both Sanborn and Burks have in common is that they’ve never been “the guy” for the linebackers at Wisconsin. Bostad, when asked what Sanborn needs to do better this year, said, “He’s gotta be a leader, he’s gotta be a voice. He needs to show confidence out there. The players respect him. He’s pushing other guys, pushing himself and being a good example.” April noted that Burks is kind of a reserved guy but also that, “he’s a no BS type of guy. People really respect his opinion when he does speak up.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To continue the grand, recent tradition of Wisconsin linebackers Burks and Sanborn will have to add to their list of skills, but their coaches seem confident that it will happen.

Here are some other notes from the call:

  • Leo Chenal discussion from Bostand and Sanborn: “What you see on the Twitter those are some traits that not a lot of guys have he’s got some power and suddeness and speed to go along with it. That combination alone...that’s a pretty good combination,” Bostad said. He went on to say that they’re trying to get Chenal as many reps as possible so he can use his physical gifts without thinking too much first. “Get him to feel comfortable with the schemes so he can use those high level traits.”

“A lot of it has to do between the ears...the confidence and mindset. That’s one thing that Chris Orr would always talk about, you know the game plan now it’s just time to go out and make plays,” Sanborn said about Chenal.

  • Mike Maskalunas discussion from Bostand and Sanborn because of course Jake had to ask about the walk-on: “I can’t say enough good things about him, he’s going to be a priceless piece to this group this year. What he brings is versatility (can play Mike or Will). He’s had a really good camp. He’s playing as fast as he’s ever played,” Bostad said.

“He brings consistency. Everyone on the team can rely on him,” Sanborn added.

  • Bostad noted that he was happy with the young guys: “Preston Zachman, Malik Reed and Jordan Turner have done a good job. Overall I’ve been really happy with the group coming in. Looking forward to get these guys ready to go sooner than later.”

However, there is certainly a caveat with having to rely on young guys: “We don’t have a lot of depth or experience, but I like the group.”

  • Interestingly, Sanborn mentioned this as something that could definitely improve from last season: “Take a step up in the communication factor with adjustments during the play.”
  • On Nick Herbig: “Nick is a really mature football player. He plays fast and physical. I love where he is trending. A guy that has everything we are looking for. Smart, tough and dependable. The guy is a playmaker,” April said.

Burks went on to say that while the mental aspect was still coming for all the freshmen: “Herbig’s got such a high motor. He never stops, he never wants to stay blocked he’s a relentless finisher. With this group of freshmen overall it’s the most physically gifted group we’ve gotten. The strongest and fastest group since I’ve been here.”

  • April mentions that it has taken a while for Izayah Green-May to get his confidence back. He’s better at this point this year than he was at the same point last year. He’s improved mentally as well. He compared Green-May to Bambi learning to walk last year, and now he knows how to use his body and “has command of it.”
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 30 Wisconsin at USF Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Burks, Green-May has a different skill-set then everyone else due to his length. “I think he’s going to take a huge step forward this year.”

  • On Spencer Lytle: “Spence has put on really good weight, sitting at about 236. Moving the best I’ve seen him. Been up and down with a nagging injury. He’s everything we wanted. He can play either side and knows how to get people lined up.”

Burks says that Lytle is “one of the smarter guys when it comes to the playbook.”