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Can Badgers LB Maema Njongmeta be the next Ivan Pace in Mike Tressel’s defense?

Njongmeta is poised to start for a second consecutive season as Wisconsin’s top linebacker

The Wisconsin Badgers are a team experiencing significant turnover in 2022, as new head coach Luke Fickell installed a new coaching staff that attracted 15 transfers to the program to compete for the upcoming season.

However, a position that has ultimately remained the same is at linebacker, where the Badgers return their top four players from a season ago: Maema Njongmeta, Jordan Turner, Jake Chaney, and Tatum Grass.

Njongmeta served as the top linebacker on the team last year, and is currently poised to remain in the same position in new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel’s defense, which was the role of standout Ivan Pace Jr. last season.

In preparation for next season, Njongmeta has scoured through Pace’s film, acknowledging the similarities in their games.

“I’ve cut on his tape, watched (expletive) near every game,” Njongmeta said, via Colten Bartholomew of the Wisconsin State Journal. “I think we play very similarly, so I’m excited to see how he ate in this defense and then to see OK, let me take that and run with it.”

Tressel sees the similarities between the two profiles, but added that it’s integral for Njongmeta to be his own player.

“They’re pretty comparable body builds. there’s no doubt about that. They’re both strong explosive, there’s no doubt about that,” Tressel said. “There’s going to be pieces of Ivan Pace’s game that Maema [Njongmeta] can take and adapt and use. But again, like we talked about with the splash playmakers, he needs to be him. We’re going to keep identifying his strength and make sure he plays to his strengths.”

Still, Tressel believes there’s value in studying Ivan Pace’s game, which can only add to one’s strengths.

“But, if I was an inside backer, I’d be studying Ivan a little bit too. Then, you got to figure out what you can use. You can’t try to be Ivan Pace. You need to be you.”

Fickell shared his thoughts on the connection between Pace and his current group, urging the value of his aggressiveness, while playing with discipline.

“The hope of anything they take from a guy like Ivan Pace is how aggressive he played,” Fickell said. “How instinctually, it’s hard to say instinct, but how sound in some ways, but really aggressive, you know?”

In Tressel’s defensive system, there’s a level of aggressiveness required in linebackers, who almost certainly will be tasked to blitz in several packages as well.

But, the most important aspect that comes with the aggressiveness is discipline, which is where Njongmeta and his fellow linebackers will have to improve the most in 2023 to execute in their new defensive system.

You can listen to Tressel’s full response here.

You can listen to Njongmeta’s full response here.