Each of the past three seasons, the edge of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense has featured either Joe Schobert or T.J. Watt opposite Vince Biegel.
All three were true threats to opposing quarterbacks on any given pass play and they mastered the ability to set strong edges to help the Badgers contain even the most productive running games in the Big Ten.
Schobert was taken by the Cleveland Browns in the 2016 NFL draft. Watt and Biegel will likely join him later this month.
Thus, it’s been a long while since UW has needed to reload at outside linebacker.
While it may not be realistic to find two players on the current roster to replace the departed production at outside linebacker, the coaching staff hopes an ambitious group effort — along with returning starters at inside linebacker and along the defensive line — will be enough to maintain one of the most dominant front sevens in the country.
“Obviously it’s going to be hard to replace two guys like that, but we’re not only going to use two starters,” redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Zack Baun said of Watt and Biegel. “We’re going to use three, four, maybe even five guys in a game. So the more depth we have, the better we can perform.”
Baun, the fourth option at the position last year, is a breakout candidate. Baun, who registered 14 tackles in 11 appearances, possesses quickness, has speed off the edge and added some strength this offseason as well.
He’s taken first-team reps this spring with fifth-year senior Garret Dooley, who filled in admirably for an injured Biegel in narrow losses against Michigan and Ohio State last year.
“I think they’re very comfortable with each other,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Baun and Dooley. “They’ve communicated on the field a lot. I think you can see that comfort level between the two of them. They talk to each other. They’re messing around, joking around. It’s kind of fun to watch. It’s just continuing to develop that and then taking the next step as far as being a playmaker.”
Outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar pointed out that Dooley is the only one in the group with real experience but he has “established himself to play at a starting level in the Big Ten.”
That doesn’t mean Dooley has won one of the two open starting jobs just yet, but the coaching staff took notice of what he was able to give the Badgers over the second half of last season. Even when Biegel returned after a two-game absence, Dooley earned a chunk of reps while Biegel was still less than 100 percent.
“Obviously, Garret Dooley has a leg up on everybody else because he’s started games and he’s played the most in our room currently,” Tibesar said. “Now he’s just got to gravitate to that leadership role. He’s a senior, and he’s kind of the only guy in my room who’s played significant time, so he’s got to take over that leadership role in our room and then on the defensive side of the football. And Zack now, it’s a little bit of time for him to mature from being a part-time player and special teams guy to see if he can grab on to and hold on to that starting position.”
The Badgers have made some timely additions to the position group this offseason that will replenish depth that was lost. The most notable may be redshirt junior Andrew Van Ginkel, a junior college transfer from Iowa Western who arrived on campus this winter. He’s taken second-team reps throughout spring practices, and the coaching staff expects him to contribute immediately.
UW also moved Leon Jacobs to the outside from inside linebacker last week, and he’s mostly taken over second-team reps in place of redshirt freshman Christian Bell, who transferred from Alabama last year.
The Badgers are still developing Bell and Keldric Preston, another redshirt freshman, to give the group more options.
The biggest problem?
Dooley remains the only one with much experience on the Division I level.
By the time fall comes around, UW hopes those younger players or those new to the group have pushed Dooley and Baun to create the type of competition that will elevate everyone at the position.
“We’re here this spring to try to find out who can play for us and who can make plays,” Tibesar said. “I don’t have any preconceived notions about who’s going to be the guy.
“We’re going to let those guys go out there on the football field and show us what they can do, and they’ll determine who’s going to be the starters and who’s going to be the backups.”