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Post spring practice thoughts: inside linebackers

The starters are set in stone, but how is the depth looking at ILB?

Kelli Steffes; UW Athletics Communications

The Wisconsin Badgers football team ended their spring practice period on Friday. After missing out on spring practice last year, having an extra 15 sessions proved to be extremely useful for Paul Chryst’s group. The Badgers didn’t have a spring game, or anything like that, but we were still able to glean a decent amount of information from the open practices and media availability.

Coach Bob Bostad has his two starters written in permanent marker, but this spring was especially useful for him to get an extended look at the other options he has in the ILB room. Let’s take a look at what we learned!

Depth Chart

Starter Backup Backup
Starter Backup Backup
Jack Sanborn Mike Maskalunas Jordan Turner
Leo Chenal Maema Njongmeta Tatum Grass

Spring standouts

A few of the players that are listed as backups really stood out this spring when given extended reps for the first time. Entering his third year in the program, Maema Njongmeta earned praise from Bostad and his teammates for his performance this spring. Jack Sanborn said, “he’s got an ability to slip his way through traffic which is, sometimes, kind of insane.”

Njongmeta went through a number of medical issues last season from a hernia to contracting COVID-19 to heart issues to a torn hamstring and his play obviously suffered for it. He is now back to full strength and should be a valuable depth piece for the Badgers to give starters Sanborn and Leo Chenal a blow.

Njongmeta at practice.
Kelli Steffes; UW Athletics Communications

“Now it’s just how quickly can I learn everything. I think I’m a quick processor. Now it’s just watching them (Chenal and Sanborn). Just trying to get to the point where coach can trust me,” Njongmeta said back in April.

Questions we still have

Why did Malik Reed transfer? The young and talented ILB put his name in the transfer portal back on April 30 (the final day of spring practice) and chose to head back closer to home (Chandler, Ariz.) in picking the Arizona Wildcats as his new school. Was it simply that he wanted to be closer to home? Was there no path to playing time for him with the emergence of Njongmeta and Tatum Grass? Coach Bostad had nice things to say about Reed during media availability, so this transfer kinda came out of left field.

How many snaps will Chenal and Sanborn play? Last season they played...just about all of them and the only real backup they had was Mike Maskalunas. While I’m sure the two of them loved playing a lot, it’s not really a tenable solution in a longer/non-COVID season. Bostad said, when asked about this: “My philosophy is I’m going to play ‘em until, I want the absolute best player our there on the field, and I’m gonna play ‘em until I can’t.” However, you’d like to think with improved depth at the position those two can get a little more rest and perhaps play at a higher level in the fourth quarters of games.

Will Braelon Allen play ILB? There is a lot of chatter that Allen may also get a look at RB when he gets on campus for fall camp. The path to playing time at RB is probably easier but I’d argue that Wisconsin needs him more at ILB. With Sanborn and Maskalunas graduating at the end of the year and Chenal potentially going pro, Allen would probably be, at worst, the third ILB on the team in 2022. This will definitely be something to keep an eye on come fall.