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Wisconsin football spring position preview: linebackers

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What does the outlook of both the inside and outside linebacker positions look like in 2020 as spring approaches?

Wisconsin v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Returning players:

Inside linebackers

  • (No. 58) Mike Maskalunas: Senior (RS), 6-foot-3, 231 pounds
  • (No. 57) Jack Sanborn: Junior, 6-foot-2, 232 pounds
  • (No. 45) Leo Chenal: Sophomore, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds
  • (No. 55) Maema Njongmeta: Freshman (RS), 6-foot, 220 pounds
  • (No. 22) Jacob Heyroth: Freshman (RS), 6-foot, 218 pounds
  • (No. 29) Jackson Kollath: Freshman (RS), 6-foot-1, 252 pounds
  • (No. 32) Marty Strey: Freshman (RS), 6-foot-2, 219 pounds
  • (No. 39) Tatum Grass: Freshman (RS), 6-foot-2, 222 pounds

Outside linebackers

  • (No. 41) Noah Burks: Senior (RS), 6-foot-2, 240 pounds
  • (No. 50) Izayah Green-May: Junior (RS), 6-foot-6, 221 pounds
  • (No. 42) Jaylan Franklin: Sophomore (RS), 6-foot-4, 222 pounds
  • (No. 7) Spencer Lytle: Freshman (RS), 6-foot-2, 223 pounds
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Iowa at Wisconsin
Veteran leaders Chris Orr and Zack Baun will be missed in the linebacker corps.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Departing players:

  • (No. 48) Travis Wiltjer: Graduation, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
  • (No. 49) Christian Bell: Transfer portal, 6-foot-4, 249 pounds
  • (No. 54) Chris Orr: Graduation, 6-foot, 224 pounds
  • (No. 56) Zack Baun: Graduation, 6-foot-3, 235 pounds
  • (No. 59) Tyler Johnson: Graduation, 6-foot-3, 241 pounds

Arriving players:

  • Nick Herbig: Four-star OLB recruit, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds (on campus for spring)
  • Jordan Turner: Three-star ILB recruit, 6-foot-1, 222 pounds (on campus for spring)
  • Preston Zachman: Three-star OLB recruit, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds (on campus for spring)
  • Kaden Johnson: Four-star OLB recruit, 6-foot-2, 235 pounds (fall enrollee)
  • Malik Reed: Three-star ILB recruit, 6-foot-2, 220 pounds (fall enrollee)
  • Ross Gengler: Walk-on, 6-foot-3, 206 pounds (fall enrollee)
  • Riley Nowakowski: Walk-on, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds (fall enrollee)
Central Michigan v Wisconsin
Jack Sanborn (57) sacks the Central Michigan quarterback early in the 2019 season.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Position overview

The Badgers lose three primary contributors in the linebacker room in Chris Orr, Zack Baun, and key reserve Tyler Johnson. All three players were consistent figures in the defensive rotation over the past two years, and will be tough to replace.

Luckily, Wisconsin has done a nice job of restocking the cupboard, so to speak, by bringing in back-to-back strong linebacker classes in 2019 and 2020. Both inside and outside, the Badgers have plenty of talent to turn to in replacing their departed veterans, but nonetheless, a lot of the players are fairly young.

The strongest holdover from last season is without a doubt Jack Sanborn. The junior inside linebacker could be ready to breakout after a tremendous first season with a starter role as a sophomore. Last year he tallied 80 tackles, five and half sacks, in addition to three interceptions which were tied for a team high. After finishing inside the top-10 in the Big Ten for solo tackles in 2019, Sanborn could be poised to take over a greater share of the workload without Chris Orr, and should be a leader from his linebacker position.

The other starter returning to the linebacker room is Noah Burks. After three seasons in the program biding his time as a reserve in only special teams situations, Burks finally got his opportunity to play in a greater capacity last year. The redshirt junior did not disappoint, playing well as the primary outside linebacker opposite Zack Baun. While Baun posted ridiculous numbers and received most of the fanfare — rightfully so — Burks quietly put together a good season, finishing sixth on the team in tackles, and adding seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and an interception return for a touchdown.

After Sanborn and Burks there is a lot of talented, younger options that could emerge. Rising sophomore Leo Chenal seems to be the most likely candidate start alongside Sanborn inside. Chenal is built like a Brinks Truck and has a propensity to make splash plays in practice with his combination of speed and strength at over 250 pounds. Walk-on Mike Maskalunas and a whole host of freshman will aim to push their way into the two-deep behind Chenal and Sanborn.

On the outside, Izayah Green-May was one of the stars of fall camp last season prior to injuring his arm/hand against South Florida in the opener. Green-May is a physical specimen at 6-foot-6, and can use his size and wingspan to get into passing lanes when he is unable to get all the way to the quarterback. He has battled adding the weight necessary to really be a full-time starter, but he is slowly approaching a better weight range. He will be a junior next season, so his time to shine is now. At this juncture, he would be the odds on favorite to start opposite Burks.

Pushing Green-May will be a bunch of young, talented players that are in need of experience. Jaylan Franklin is a twitchy and very athletic sophomore pass rusher who could surprise this season, while Spencer Lytle was a heralded high school recruit that could also push for time if healthy given his ability to drop into coverage fluidly.

There are also some intriguing true freshman joining the team this spring, and in the fall, that could help the team if they can acclimate to the scheme quickly. Don’t be surprised to see a few of the walk-ons stuck in the glut of players at inside linebacker try out a role on the outside this spring as well for greater depth at the position.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Kent State at Wisconsin
Leo Chenal (45) grabs a loose fumble against Kent State.
Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who needs a big spring to crack the two-deep/who are you most excited to see in spring?

For the linebackers, this section is comprised of two separate answers for me.

I am most excited to see Leo Chenal. He is one of the biggest highlight reel creators on the defense given his spirit and the way he plays with reckless abandon. However, I feel as though he will be starting next to Sanborn barring a surprise after playing immediately as a true freshman.

Therefore, the players to really monitor are some of the younger athletes vying for playing time.

At outside linebacker Jaylan Franklin, Spencer Lytle and Nick Herbig are the trio of youngsters that could really throw a wrench in the depth chart with solid springs. Paul Chryst has consistently mentioned that the spring is a time to prove that a player deserves more opportunities come fall camp. The three players listed above are all uniquely positioned to push for playing time if they are able to put it together the upcoming weeks.

Along the interior spots of the linebacker group, Mike Maskalunas is a veteran walk-on that should see playing time. But the other spot in the two-deep is up for grabs. Maema Njongmeta showed flashes in the fall at times, but he has company. A conglomerate of redshirt walk-ons, and a pair of early enrollees will duke it out with him for reps.

Already on campus, Jordan Turner is physically advanced, and should bring smarts and physicality to the group. Preston Zachman, a three-star recruit out of Pennsylvania, is also on campus for spring practice, and he could be a player to watch at either inside or outside linebacker given his smarts and athleticism.

Who has the potential to be an all-conference performer (no players who have already made an all-conference team)?

I think Jack Sanborn and Noah Burks are the most probable linebackers on the roster to potentially make any all-conference team. Sanborn is a future star for the defense, and he is primed for a greater role sans Chris Orr. Sanborn will be asked to do more next season, including the responsibility of aligning the defense and making the calls, but he actually had more solo tackles than Orr last year. I expect his numbers to balloon if he can stay healthy.

I think the player that could make the biggest leap of the group though is Burks. In looking at his overall statistics, his production as a first time starter closely mirrors what Zack Baun did in his first year as a starter in 2018 before having a monster senior season. If Burks follows a similar career arc now that he is on his final act, he could be equipped for a big season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Northwestern at Wisconsin
Noah Burks (41) celebrates a big run stop against Northwestern.
Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where will this position group improve from last season?

The Wisconsin pass rush was phenomenal last season. The Badgers averaged 3.6 sacks per game, which ranked No. 5 in the FBS. The ability to create pressure and havoc in the backfield was a big reason for the success of the defense overall, and it will be tough to replicate in 2020.

A big reason for the improved defense, was the work of the front seven. While the linebacker positions often reaps the statistical benefits, the defensive line was the primary reason. The defensive line was finally healthy, and did a tremendous job of eating up blockers to create lanes for the linebackers to find the football. Fortunately, the defensive lineman that played the majority of the snaps last season all return in 2020, so the linebackers should have even more opportunities to flow to the ball aggressively unimpeded in run support if the line continues to grow.

Leo Chenal is a player that could really benefit from the additional room to roam. While Orr was a phenomenal playmaker on the defense last season, I believe that Chenal is a more explosive athlete than Orr was for the Badgers ever since his knee injury in 2016. In addition to being heavier, Chenal is also quicker than Orr running sideline to sideline based on what I have seen in practice. Orr definitely had a better, and more robust understanding of the defense as a whole, but Chenal has the physical and athletic traits to be a plus linebacker in the Big Ten as a sophomore given the wider lanes he may have to maneuver through thanks to the lineman in front of him.

Where will this position group be worse than last season?

Seniors Orr and Baun combined for 24 sacks, and 33.5 tackles for loss last year, so their production will need to be replaced in the pass rushing categories.

While the statistical outputs of those two standout linebackers was impressive, their leadership skills will be missed more. Orr was the vocal leader of the entire team, and was a consummate teammate that players looked up to. Baun was a player that had the respect of his teammates, and he was a guy the team could turn to when a big play was needed off the edge.

Sanborn and Burks will need to step into leadership roles within the front seven, but the loss of Orr and Baun from a leadership standpoint will require help from beyond the linebacker corps on defensive side of the ball.