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Baun-OLB depth spring 2018

Wisconsin Badgers outside linebacker Zack Baun (56) in action as the 2nd ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeat the 8th ranked Wisconsin Badgers (30-23) in overtime at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

The University of Wisconsin's outside linebackers must replace both starters this offseason, familiarize themselves with a new coach and hope the injury bug finally leaves one of their most promising players alone.

While the Badgers have become accustomed to reloading on the edge of their front seven in recent years, that trend could be tested this fall. Junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel developed into a proven playmaker last season, but no outside linebackers have more than one year of meaningful on-field experience at the position.

"As a unit, we're better when everybody's good to go, when we're rotating, keeping everyone fresh and everyone's playing at their top level," outside linebacker Tyler Johnson said. "(Outside linebackers) Coach (Bobby April) has been rotating us a lot, so we're working with different guys in different spots. Coach is getting a feel for us, and we're getting a feel for what he expects out of us."

After potential NFL talents Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley moved on this offseason, April will need to build up trust in enough of UW's returning players to keep a deep rotation when the actual games begin this fall.

Zack Baun, the other projected starter opposite Van Ginkel, missed all of last year with a foot injury. He's battled a number of injuries during his three years on campus and missed practice time again this spring.

If he can get healthy and stay healthy, the speedy, athletic Baun could be in line for a breakout season.

"We were excited about Zack," UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said earlier this spring. "We thought he was going to have a big role and be able to help this defense, and obviously an injury happened. ... He understands what we do. He was on the field two years ago, so we trusted him two years ago, and I expect him to make a big jump this spring."

Johnson came to UW in 2015 as a walk-on and was awarded a scholarship for the spring semester after cornerback Nick Nelson declared for the NFL Draft a year early.

The Menasha native earned it with his play last season. He fought his way into the rotation as the year progressed and made a few big plays in limited playing time, including a strip-sack at Illinois and another forced fumble at Indiana.

"Coaches felt comfortable with me being out there and doing my job (last year)," Johnson said. "They just hadn't seen the production, so towards the middle of last year when I started making a couple plays, it really gave me a lot of energy. I felt the coaches thought if they needed a big play to spark something, that they could turn to me if they needed to."

Johnson's taken first-team reps with Baun out in recent practices. Even with a healthy Baun, though, the Badgers will need Johnson to produce in a much bigger role than he saw a year ago.

UW moved Arrington Farrar from inside linebacker to outside linebacker this offseason with the hope that the former safety would finally settle into a comfortable position and make a leap during his senior year. If the experiment doesn't work out, the Badgers will need to rely on a younger player with very little or no experience - such as Christian Bell, Noah Burks or Izayah Green-May - to provide extra cover at the position.

April said earlier this spring that he believes Farrar will fit in well at outside linebacker, and he's optimistic about the position group as a whole.

"The decision to move (Farrar) there is really, he's a playmaker and that's a playmaking spot," April said. "I think he's going to do good there. Right now he's showing that he's getting a good understanding of what we're asking him. ... We have some tough, instinctive football players at the position."


Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.