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Badgers roster breakdown: Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal powering an inside linebacker group primed for a big year
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UW POSITION PREVIEW | INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Badgers roster breakdown: Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal powering an inside linebacker group primed for a big year

From the Badgers roster breakdown: Everything you need to know about every position on Wisconsin's football team series
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Jack Sanborn

Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn is looking to create more game-changing plays after finishing the pandemic-shortened season with one interception and a forced fumble. 

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:

Depth chart

Projected starters — Ht.; Wt.; Yr.; Hometown

Jack Sanborn — 6-2; 236; Sr.; Deer Park, Ill.

Leo Chenal — 6-2; 261; Jr.; Grantsburg, Wis.

Key backups

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.

The rest

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.

Teammate's take

In the seventh part of the Wisconsin State Journal's position-by-position breakdown series, UW fullback John Chenal breaks down the Badgers' inside linebackers.

Overview

Jack Sanborn - UW vs. Kent State

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 - UW vs. Minnesota

Leo Chenal, right, and Jack Sanborn, center, celebrate with teammate Nick Herbig during UW's win over Minnesota last season.

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

Maema Njongmeta - spring practice

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.

Looking ahead

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.

Wisconsin senior linebacker describes why a player in the Badgers' secondary is the most underrated on the team

The number

55 | Total defensive snaps played by inside linebackers outside of Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.


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