Maema Njongmeta was wracked with fear for a few weeks last September.
Njongmeta, a sophomore inside linebacker for the University of Wisconsin football team, tested positive for COVID-19 in the early days of that month. It was his second significant health scare of 2020 following a hernia that required surgery in July.
Njongmeta underwent a heart scan after his COVID diagnosis, part of the Big Ten Conference’s protocol after a player contracted the virus. That scan revealed a pericardial effusion, or excess fluid between the heart and the sac surrounding the heart, and doctors were concerned it was caused by COVID.
“That was probably one of the least good days, one of the worst days I've had on campus. Just panicking,” Njongmeta told reporters Wednesday. “Especially at the time, we didn't know a lot about COVID, and so it was like, ‘All right, is this the end of the season, end of my career type situation?’ The doctors didn’t have any answers at that point other than, ‘Hey, you can't practice or play until further notice.’ So that was definitely a rough stretch.”
Njongmeta said all doctors and trainers could tell him in the short term was that he wasn’t allowed to practice or play with the Badgers, and that more tests would be run. Those tests revealed that his EKG — a measure of the electrical signals from the heart — was altered by the effusion, but not as drastically as once thought.
An issue doctors encountered was that Njongmeta never had his heart scanned in these manners, so they didn’t know if the effusion was natural or a symptom of COVID.
“There's just some naturally occurring things I already had in my heart, certain structures looked a certain way that normally you either have that because you were born like that or because of COVID,” Njongmeta said.
Doctors were able to determine the effusion wasn’t related to his COVID diagnosis and he was cleared to return to action after a seven-day acclimation period. He got back to practice with UW in early October.
That unfortunately wasn’t the end of Njongmeta’s health problems last year. He tore his groin less than a week after returning to practice, which kept him out of action until he was able to play in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
He’s healthy now and has been a standout in the Badgers’ spring practices, according to position coach Bob Bostad.
“He's doing some really good things, kind of things that we saw when he was a high school player that we really, really liked,” Bostad said.
Njongmeta is just happy to be back on the field after a 2020 beset with health issues.
“I'm good now, healthy,” he said. “But boy, a situation like that really makes you grateful to be able to practice every day because you realize just how close you were to not practicing or continue playing.”
Five things to watch on Wisconsin's defense as spring football starts
The Badgers must find a new top unit at the defensive end spots after two years of productive play from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand. Loudermilk is making a run at the NFL while Rand stepped away from football due to injuries.
Junior Matt Henningsen, who missed five games last season after tearing his bicep, and sophomore Isaiah Mullens are the most experienced players in the group and can serve as the starters, but building the talent behind them will be crucial this spring.
Freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson Jr. played in two games apiece last season, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan and his availability for spring practices is unlikely. Two names to watch are freshmen early enrollees Mike Jarvis and TJ Bollers. Jarvis is the only true defensive line recruit in the 2021 class and Bollers, a touted four-star prospect, is someone defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard believes can play an “outside linebacker-plus” role, potentially playing along the line at some point.
The Badgers have been churning out pro-ready outside linebackers in recent years, with players like Zack Baun, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Watt becoming NFL starters. The current group of outside backers has high-level talent but didn’t have the most productive season in 2020. UW had 11 sacks last season, with four coming from its outside linebackers.
Both starters return in senior Noah Burks and freshman Nick Herbig, and key rotation players like C.J. Goetz, Spencer Lytle and Marty Strey also are back. This group could be defined by the development of freshmen Kaden Johnson and Aaron Witt. Johnson was a four-star recruit and saw action in three games last season, while Witt played in five games and tallied a strip sack in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest.
Bollers again is a player to watch in this group, as is junior Izayah Green-May. It’s been a difficult pair of seasons for Green-May, with a thumb injury derailing him in 2019 and a right-arm injury limiting him to one game in 2020.
When inside linebacker Jack Sanborn announced his return for another year at UW, it gave the Badgers one of the best tandems of linebackers in the Big Ten for another season. Sanborn (52) and Chenal (46) led the Badgers in tackles and Chenal (three sacks, seven hurries) was the most productive pass-rusher on the team.
Senior Mike Maskalunas will play his final year at UW this fall after serving as the backup at both inside linebacker spots last season. This spring could be a showcase for young players in this group like Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed and Jordan Turner to push for roles.
It’s difficult to earn snaps on defense behind a duo like Chenal and Sanborn because they rarely leave the field, but Grass proved to be a valued special teamer last season, playing in all seven games. Ensuring this crew is ready if Chenal or Sanborn were to suffer an injury is pivotal to ensure the defense doesn’t come unglued without one of its stars.
The only vacated starting role in the Badgers’ defense without a proven replacement is safety. Eric Burrell played in 48 games and made 26 starts over four seasons at UW, but the Badgers need to find his replacement this spring as he makes his way to the pros.
There are options for the spot in players like Titus Toler and John Torchio, who have seen time over the past two seasons. Leonhard could opt for Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder to man both safety spots after the two rotated at one last season.
Impressing this spring could help a player get his foot in the door of the starting lineup before a pair of four-star freshmen arriving this fall — Braelon Allen and Hunter Wohler — make the competition at safety even tougher.
UW cornerbacks were short on highlights in 2020. None of the team’s seven interceptions came from corners, they were beat for big plays on multiple occasions in rivalry games at Northwestern and Iowa, and they didn’t take the step forward one would expect from a group that had between six and seven players with significant playing time under their belts.
New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat inherits a room with multiple starters back, including Faion Hicks and Casear Williams, and young players needing to become more consistent like Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin.
One position in this group that is of key importance this spring is the nickel back, or slot corner. Hicks filled that role most of last season, and he could once again, but UW needs to have more options to move inside other than one of its better outside corners. Or UW can feel more comfortable having Hicks move to the slot in sub packages if one of the younger corners can improve on the outside this spring.
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