Wisconsin’s defense returns eight starters off of last year’s unit that finished fourth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense in the country. There is optimism among the returnees that they can be even better in 2020.
The only way that happens is if the guys they choose to fill the vacancies left by inside linebacker Chris Orr and outside linebacker Zack Baun play at a high level. That duo combined for 24 sacks and 33 tackles for loss a year ago before heading off to the NFL. No one is saying the new guys must duplicate that production but they can’t afford to have a monumental drop off in play.
With fall camp essentially done, and just a week before the season opener against Illinois, here’s where the two positions stand:
Position coach Bobby April said Thursday he feels he’s got five guys he can use right now. Those include senior Noah Burks, junior Izayah Green-May, sophomores CJ Goetz and Marty Strey, along with redshirt freshman Spencer Lytle.
“Those are the five I’ve got a lot of confidence in,” said April, who noted that trust in them stemmed from those guys being around the program for awhile.
But April said the young guys at the position — Nick Herbig, Aaron Witt, Kaden Johnson and walk-on Riley Nowakowski — are right behind the older players.
“Those four guys are pushing, man,” April said. “It’s a young competitive group.”
Burks and Green-May are expected to be the starters at the position. It’ll be the second year starting for Burks and he’s ready to have his breakout moment similar to that of Baun a year ago.
“Looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing what (the guys before me) have been through, knowing I could do the same,” Burks said. “Whether it’s taking care of my body more, getting in the film books more. It’s all about the little details that will really separate you. I’ve been trying to push myself harder in that respect. Hopefully that’s going to pay off for me this year.”
Green-May started one game last season before a hand injury derailed his development. He played in 11 games but it was mostly on special teams. A 6-foot-6, he weighed just 215 pounds in the spring. However, he added 17 pounds between then and fall camp, and the expectations are high entering the season.
“I’m expecting great things from Green-May,” said Burks, while noting the different kind of body type the junior brings to the position. “I think he’s going to take a huge step forward this year.
The belief is that Goetz and Lytle, if healthy, would be the next two in. In the past, April has used two guys heavily and then had a third rotate in.
If one of the young guys were to break through, it would probably be Herbig. The four-star recruit has garnered plenty of attention from fellow players and his name has been brought up plenty in Zoom interviews with reporters the last few weeks.
“He plays fast, he’s physical. All the stuff you saw from his high school highlights and tapes have come to fruition for us. I love where he is trending,” April said. “He’s a guy that’s got everything we’re looking for. He’s smart, tough and dependable. He checks all three boxes. I can see why people are talking about him, because the kid is a playmaker.”
Herbig came to Wisconsin from Hawaii as one of the highest-rated commits in the Badgers’ 2020 recruiting class. His talent is showing up but so is his work ethic.
“I think the biggest thing with Nick is he’s got such a high motor. The guy just never stops,” Burks said. “He doesn’t ever want to stay blocked or anything. He’s a pretty relentless finisher.”
Whether any of the young guys see the field early or not, Burks is impressed with the group as a whole.
“I would say this is probably the most physically gifted group of freshmen that we’ve gotten,” Burks said. “It’s probably the strongest and fastest group of true freshmen that I’ve seen since I’ve been here for the outside linebacker group.”
The Badgers get their leading tackler back in Jack Sanborn for his second season as a starter. Next to him will likely be sophomore Leo Chenal. A physical freak in the weight room, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Chenal is still young as a player even though he got some action as the third inside linebacker a year ago.
“He has some power and some suddenness and speed to go along with size. Just that combination alone, that’s a pretty good combination,” inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said. “Now it’s just putting it together. Really, when you look at him, he doesn’t have a lot of reps under his belt. It’s just taking those traits that he has and trying to get him to feel really comfortable with the scheme to be able to use those really high level traits.”
Senior Mike Maskalunas can play both inside linebacker spots and had a really good fall camp, according to Bostad.
“I think he’s playing as fast as he’s ever played. He sees things, he’s confident,” Bostad said. “I’m really excited to see him play.”
Behind those three, things get a bit murky. Bostad would like a fourth guy to step up but it hasn’t happened yet.
Redshirt freshman Maema Njongmeta was out early in fall camp, though Bostad said he’s “coming along fine,” while they also have three intriguing true freshmen in Malik Reed, Jordan Turner and Preston Zachman.
“Right now, I look at having three guys that I feel rock solid about,” Bostad said of Sanborn, Chenal and Maskalunas.
Bostad does like the young group behind those three.
“Does that mean they’re ready to play Big Ten football? That’s a stretch,” Bostad said.