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Wisconsin football 2020 review/2021 preview: inside linebacker

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The inside linebacker position is next up in our position-by-position look back at 2020, with a quick look ahead to 2021 as well.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020 starters

  • Inside linebacker: Jack Sanborn (junior)
  • Inside linebacker: Leo Chenal (sophomore)

2020 statistics

  • Sanborn led the team in tackles with 52 total (31 solo), and also compiled four tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in just seven games.
  • Chenal was second on the team in tackles with 46 (31 solo), and had a team-high six tackles for a loss, three sacks, one interception, seven quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in his seven games played.
  • Mike Maskalunas played in five games while rotating in as the third inside linebacker, and wrapped up five tackles.
  • Tatum Grass, a former walk-on from Holmen was tied for the third leading tackler of all inside linebackers with five (mostly on special teams) while participating in all seven games.

2020 season review

Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal handled the bulk of the reps at inside linebacker this past season. The duo proved to be stout against the run, and were key pieces to Jim Leonhard’s top-five defense.

Sanborn had another strong season in 2020 after entering the season as a pre-season All-Conference selection following a standout 2019 performance (80 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions in 14 games). The junior out of Illinois took on additional responsibility last season with Chris Orr moving on to the NFL, and he was on pace for over 100 tackles if a traditional schedule would have been played.

Next to him was first-year starter Leo Chenal. One of the strongest players on the entire team, Chenal had a great season as well in only his second season on campus. After playing a decent amount of rotational snaps in 2019, most folks expected that the sophomore from northwest Wisconsin would assume the starting spot vacated by Orr’s departure, and he flourished in the role. While Chenal was not able to replicate the pass rushing numbers of Orr, he did still lead the team in sacks and quarterback hurries from his inside linebacker spot.

Walk-on inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas played in five of the seven games this season and was the only inside linebacker listed in the depth chart behind Sanborn and Chenal. Maskalunas is a throwback inside ‘backer that is solid in run support and has a role in multiple special teams units. The veteran leadership and consistency of Maskalunas gave the team some much needed depth in a COVID-19 riddled season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 FAU at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2021 season preview

Not a whole lot should change for inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad in 2021.

Sanborn will once again be the group leader after opting to come back for his senior season, while Chenal should be even better after a full off-season and a year under his belt. Expect both players to once again put up good numbers statistically and be key pieces for the Wisconsin defense next year. With less experience along the defensive line coming back (Isaiahh Loudermilk is off to the NFL, and Garrett Rand is medically retiring) the duo of Sanborn and Chenal could be tasked with a little bit more of the tackling workload in run support, but that shouldn’t be anything they can’t handle.

Behind the two returning starters is where things get interesting. Mike Maskalunas has noted that he intends to be back after only playing in five games in 2020, and that should definitely help out depth wise. Maskalunas is an experienced option to rotate in, and will once again be a special teams contributor.

Beyond those three returners, the depth is fairly shaky. The Badgers have loaded up at inside linebacker the past few classes, but none of the four scholarship freshman on the roster (Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed, Jordan Turner or Preston Zachman) contributed much last season. Walk-on redshirt freshman Tatum Grass participated more than any of the four previously mentioned, and he himself was sparingly used.

With another large group of highly regarded inside linebackers coming in this spring and summer, the competition for the fourth linebacker spot should be fun to watch. Sanborn contemplated leaving this off-season, so 2021 will likely be his last season in Madison, and Maskalunas is entering his sixth season. With playing time on the horizon entering the 2022 season, it will be fascinating to see which young inside linebackers are able to step up and flash promise this off-season and next fall at one of the most important positions in the Wisconsin defense.