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Wisconsin football 2020 fall practice position preview: linebackers

Wisconsin’s trademark position on defense will have some fresh faces in the mix this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Look, we don’t know if there is going to be college football this fall but until we know for sure that there isn’t, we are going to treat this offseason like any other and get you prepared for the 2020 season. Here are our thoughts on each position group before spring practice started and then, uh, got canceled to get you fully up to speed.

Since, to be quite honest, not a whole lot has changed since we wrote the spring previews we’ll be adding a couple of different elements to these previews. We’ll take our best guesses at how the depth chart for each position group will look this fall and we’ll also take a look at a potential breakout player for the 2021 season (in case you haven’t had your Graham Mertz fix in a few months).

Returning Players:

Jack Sanborn, inside linebacker, 6’2” 232, junior
Leo Chenal, inside linebacker, 6’2” 250, sophomore
Mike Maskalunas, inside linebacker, 6’3” 231, redshirt senior
Maema Njongmeta, inside linebacker, 6’0” 220, redshirt freshman
Marty Strey, inside linebacker, 6’2” 219, redshirt sophomore
Jacob Heyroth, inside linebacker, 6’0” 218, redshirt sophomore
Tatum Grass, inside linebacker, 6’2” 222, redshirt freshman

Noah Burks, outside linebacker, 6’2” 240, redshirt senior
Izayah Green-May, outside linebacker, 6’6” 221, redshirt junior
Jaylan Franklin, outside linebacker, 6’4” 222, redshirt sophomore
Spencer Lytle, outside linebacker, 6’2” 223, redshirt freshman
C.J. Goetz, outside linebacker, 6’3” 241, redshirt sophomore

Departed Players

Chris Orr, inside linebacker, graduation (Carolina Panthers)
Zack Baun, outside linebacker, graduation (New Orleans Saints)
Tyler Johnson, outside linebacker, graduation
Travis Wiltjer, inside linebacker, graduation

Christian Bell, outside linebacker, graduate transfer

Incoming Players

Malik Reed, inside linebacker, 6’2” 220, freshman
Jordan Turner, inside linebacker, 6’1” 222, freshman
Ross Gengler, inside linebacker, 6’3” 220, freshman (walk on)
Jeb Frey, inside linebacker, 6’1” 210, freshman (walk on)

Kaden Johnson, outside linebacker, 6’2” 235, freshman
Nick Herbig, outside linebacker, 6’2” 215, freshman
Aaron Witt, outside linebacker, 6’5” 230, freshman
Preston Zachman, outside linebacker, 6’2” 205, freshman
Riley Nowakowski, outside linebacker, 6’2” 218, freshman (walk on)

Depth Chart/Position Breakdown

LB Depth Chart

Role Player Position Year Games started
Role Player Position Year Games started
Starter Noah Burks OLB RS SR 11
Starter Jaylan Franklin OLB RS SO 0
Backup Izayah Green-May OLB RS JR 1
Backup Spencer Lytle OLB RS FR 0
Role Player Position Year Games Started
Starter Jack Sanborn ILB JR 14
Starter Leo Chenal ILB SO 0
Backup Mike Maskalunas ILB RS SR 0
Backup Maema Njongmeta ILB RS FR 0

Like in any 3-4 defense, the linebackers are the lifeblood of the unit. The primary tacklers and pass rushers, their performance is often the choke point for the defense. Wisconsin has had an embarrassment of riches at both inside and outside linebacker over the past four years, but for the first time in quite a while, both positions will be very young.

At inside linebacker, they return Jack Sanborn, a true junior who started all 14 games last season next to Chris Orr. After that, there’s nearly no in-game experience at the position. Leo Chenal will be the other starter, but was primarily a special teamer as a freshman. The same can be said for Mike Maskalunas, who looks to be the next in line of Badgers, “those who stay will be champions”. Maema Njongmeta will likely be the fourth inside linebacker this season, while a host of talented newcomers look to find their way into the two-deep as well.

Outside linebacker is likely weaker in the two deep this season than it’s ever been in the 3-4 alignment for the Badgers. Burks is an adequate complimentary player, but will be relied upon heavily to be a playmaker and provide leadership to a position sorely needing it. A ton of promise and potential is behind Burks, but someone will need to take a step forward and be the production the position will need. Izayah Green-May has a limitless ceiling, but will need to carry weight more effectively than he did last season. Jaylan Franklin also got considerable time last season, but will need more consistent production. Spencer Lytle had over 40 scholarship offers out of high school, but picked the Badgers. He’ll find his way onto the field this season, and could prove to be just what the Badgers need at the other starting spot.

Behind these guys, however, is a cavalcade of talented newcomers. Four star recruits Kaden Johnson and Nick Herbig should also both push for playing time as true freshmen.

Most important player in position group

Inside linebacker: Leo Chenal. This is an easy one. We’ve seen what this defense can do to teams when they have two talented inside linebackers. Jack Sanborn has shown the Badgers what he can do, but Chenal can turn this defense from good to nasty if he’s as good as he’s expected to be. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Chenal is a specimen who can make a difference for Jim Leonhard’s group.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin
Jaylan Franklin
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Outside linebacker: I’m going to say Jaylan Franklin. While Burks is the established vet at the position, I have a sinking feeling we know exactly what Burks is, and he might be all he’s going to be. If this defense is going to reach the heights of what it should be, the Badgers will need a difference maker at one of the outside linebacker positions, and whether it’s Franklin, Green-May, Lytle, or one of the freshmen, UW is going to need some juice at the position.

Potential 2021 Breakout Player

I’ll stick with an outside linebacker here, since Sanborn and Chenal will likely start at inside linebacker both in 2020 as well as 2021. I’m going to go with Nick Herbig, but only because I suspect he’s a bit more developed at the position than Kaden Johnson, though both have massive upside as pass rushers and lanky athletes in this defense. Herbig and Johnson both have pro potential, and should carry on the line of NFL prospects the Badgers have had at the position.