As the University of Wisconsin football team prepares to kick off the 2021 season, the Wisconsin State Journal is offering an unprecedented inside look at this year's roster.
From players breaking down their teammates' performances in camp and what to expect this season, to beat reporter Colten Bartholomew sharing his expertise on key position battles and players to watch, we've got Badgers fans covered.
In the seventh part of our position-by-position breakdown series, UW fullback John Chenal breaks down the Badgers' inside linebackers as we take an in-depth look at the group:
Projected starters — Ht.; Wt.; Yr.; Hometown
Jack Sanborn — 6-2; 236; Sr.; Deer Park, Ill.
Leo Chenal — 6-2; 261; Jr.; Grantsburg, Wis.
Mike Maskalunas — 6-3; 239; Sr.; Long Grove, Ill.
Maema Njongmeta — 6-0; 227; So.; Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Tatum Grass — 6-2; 231; So.; Holmen, Wis.
Jake Chaney — 5-11; 222; Fr.; Cape Coral, Fla.
Ross Gengler — 6-2; 225; Redshirt Fr.; Delavan, Wis.
Jake Ratzlaff — 6-2; 206; Fr.; Rosemount, Minn.
Bryan Sanborn — 6-1; 229; Fr.; Lake Zurich, Ill.
Garrison Solliday — 5-11; 230; Fr.; Eagan, Minn.
Jordan Turner — 6-1; 228; Redshirt Fr.; Farmington, Mich.
The Badgers are primed for a big year from their inside linebacker corps with two of the best linebackers returning in the Big Ten Conference. Jack Sanborn (above) is looking for a big senior season after leading UW in tackles a year ago. He showed improvements in his play recognition and pass rushing in 2020, and another step forward in those areas could make him even more dangerous this season. He told reporters at Big Ten media days that creating more game-changing plays, like sacks and turnovers, is his biggest goal entering the season.
“There are a lot of things that go into that,” Sanborn said. “Practicing and also knowing the time when you can punch a ball out like that, or being better technique-wise with your feet so you’re there to make an interception.”
Leo Chenal (above right) earned reps as a freshman in 2019 with overwhelming power and willingness to hit, and he backed up that with an even better showing as a sophomore. He was second on the team in tackles and led UW in sacks, blitzing up the middle and blowing up running backs trying to get in his way. He plays at or near top speed every second he’s on the field, and his play recognition got better as the season went on. He could be in for a massive season if he stays healthy.
Maema Njongmeta started showing he was gaining confidence in his knowledge of the scheme and putting his athletic gifts on display this spring. Like Chenal, he’s a big, strong, fast linebacker who can be disruptive when he puts everything together. It’ll be hard for anyone to take snaps away from Chenal and Sanborn, but he could earn reps by making plays throughout camp.
Mike Maskalunas is a steady backup if Chenal or Sanborn miss any time, and position coach Bob Bostad said he was like a second coach on the field during spring practices. Tatum Grass has been earning his stripes on special teams and in practice over the past two seasons, and he will be in the running for the second-team unit.
Watch out for Jake Ratzlaff — defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said he sees Ratzlaff as capable of playing both linebacker spots and he’ll start at inside linebacker. The four-star recruit chose football over a full-ride hockey scholarship to Minnesota and chances to play college baseball. It may take him a bit to get up to speed, but he possesses good lateral quickness and instincts. Ratzlaff could be an impact special teams player if not on defense right away.
Ready to make a leap
Njongmeta (above left) has been quick to the ball and seems to understand his role more this fall. While playing time at the position is tough to come by, he’d be a prime candidate to get more game reps, especially if the Badgers find themselves well ahead in a game this season. His physicality is a weapon Bostad wants to use.
Sanborn and Chenal take pride in the number of snaps they play — Bostad said he has to drag them off the field. That’s great for the current Badgers defense but makes it tough for a young group to prove themselves in game scenarios. This could be the last year with Chenal, Maskalunas and Sanborn, which would open the door for Grass, Njongmeta, Ratzlaff and others.
55 | Total defensive snaps played by inside linebackers outside of Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.
The Badgers locked in their first incoming transfer of the class in late October in Kalon Gervin, a cornerback from Michigan State.
Gervin played in 19 games for the Spartans, including seven career starts. He had 22 tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery at MSU. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Detroit will add some experience to a cornerback group that loses its top two starters to graduation.
Gervin was offered a scholarship by UW coming out of high school.
UW added an athletic defensive line prospect in mid-November when Tristan Monday flipped his commitment from Arizona to the Badgers.
UW was interested in Monday since he arrived in high school, but his size then didn't lend itself to a natural position fit in the Badgers' defense. Now standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 240 pounds, he'll start his career as a defensive end. UW offered him a scholarship in early November and he accepted it after visiting campus Nov. 12-14.
Monday is a consensus three-star recruit from Scottsdale, Arizona, who had offers from Arizona, Baylor, Colorado, Florida State and Iowa State.
After much discussion and thought, Tristan has changed his commitment and will be accepting a football scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin. He has the utmost respect and admiration for the University of Arizona but this is an opportunity he cannot ignore. pic.twitter.com/hqf8GGqZwp— Tim Monday (@pappamonday) November 16, 2021
Vaughan, a 6-foot-4 linebacker from Walled Lake, Michigan, committed to UW in late November, choosing the Badgers over offers from programs like Colorado, Florida State, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and others.
Vaughan is rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports and Rivals.
Vaughan has been a late-riser on the recruiting trail, with all of his Power Five offers coming since October, but he has potential to be an inside or outside linebacker for the Badgers. He could fill the big-bodied outside ‘backer role that C.J. Goetz currently has for UW or could be a hybrid type of linebacker like UW pulled in with Jake Ratzlaff in the 2021 cycle.
In this Series
Badgers roster breakdown: Everything you need to know about every position on Wisconsin's football team
- 11 updates