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Noah Burks' consistent play key to Badgers' top-ranked defense
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Noah Burks' consistent play key to Badgers' top-ranked defense

Noah Burks photo

Outside linebacker Noah Burks returns an interception 68 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 24-15 win over Northwestern on Sept. 28 at Camp Randall Stadium.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A single word comes up when teammates and coaches talk about University of Wisconsin linebacker Noah Burks:


It comes up so often it almost seems as if the answer was coordinated.

But as football players and coaches discuss Burks, a junior who’s holding down the outside linebacker spot opposite senior Zack Baun, it’s his consistency that time and again jumps out.

“I think what Noah’s done a really good job of, and I think it started in the spring and then fall camp, he’s been really consistent,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “You’re able to rely on what he’s doing. He’ll do it. If he’s supposed to play it a certain way, he’s going to do it.”

Calling someone consistent can seem like a platitude — something nice to say when nothing else comes to mind.

Noah Burks mug


But to UW’s players, consistency means more than that. It means doing your job each play, whether it’s going on a pass rush or setting the edge against the run. It means not having your play dip as the game wears on. It means staying in your lane to not allow a quarterback an avenue for escaping a blitz. It means making a tackle or picking off a pass when the opportunity strikes.

Burks — a 6-foot-2, 235-pound product of Carmel, Indiana — has 11 tackles in six games this season. He doesn’t have many plays that will make the highlight reel, save for his 68-yard interception return for a touchdown against Northwestern. But his impact for the No. 6 Badgers (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference), who play at Illinois (2-4, 0-3) on Saturday, is appreciated when UW’s top-ranked defense breaks down its play.

“(Burks) is a first-year starter and he’s playing at a high, high level right now,” Baun said. “He’s not doing a lot that you guys would see, but in the film room he’s doing a great job for us. Our main goal with him was for him to gain his confidence and I think he’s really doing that.”

To the bench and back

Burks’ commitment to remaining consistent was tested during fall camp.

After playing as a reserve in every game of 2018, Burks was slotted into the No. 1 defense during spring practice. But when the Badgers returned from summer break, sophomore Izayah Green-May was in the starting role with Burks as his backup.

Burks said he knew he’d be in the rotation regardless of who was the starter, and he didn’t let dropping out of the starting lineup affect his effort in practices.

“If it did bother him, which it might’ve, he didn’t show it. He just worked,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I think to his credit he just worked, put his head down, and not get in his feelings and just go to work every day knowing he was going to have opportunities. It was up to him to create more. With the way he’s playing on Saturdays, he’s definitely earning more and more opportunities.”

Green-May started the season opener against South Florida but then missed the home opener against Central Michigan with a right arm injury. That opened the door for Burks to get back into the starting role, one he hasn’t relinquished since.

Burks said he didn’t dwell on the demotion.

“I think it goes back to the consistency,’’ Burks said. “My goal was just coming in, being the same guy every day. Obviously, I was going to work my butt off, that’s just something that we do here at Wisconsin, everybody in the program. I never really thought too much about it.”

Burks’ steady approach, even through adversity, is something Baun appreciates.

“He’s the same guy every day,” Baun said. “That’s what he brings. He’s got one level and one speed. Whether he’s first on the depth chart or bottom of the depth chart, even in special teams, he brings an energy that this team really needs and he’s a gritty guy.”

Every day the same

Baun’s comment on Burks’ unchanging personality is another that’s repeated often.

Burks is who he is on the field, and that doesn’t seem to change regardless of what’s going on off of it. That’s not easy given the stresses of playing Big Ten football, school and a personal life. Leonhard said Burks has taken to heart one of the program’s messages about finding who you are as a man.

“We get these kids, in most cases, their first time away from home. Sometimes Mom and Dad tell you who to be and what to do and how to do it. So it’s kind of a big-time transition period for these kids,” Leonhard said.

“When you see guys grow up and really take ownership on and off the field, it’s amazing how usually one leads to both. Whether it’s on the field or off the field, usually once they figure out that is kind of the trick of ownership and consistency, it usually translates on and off the field.”

Burks’ approach to practice and improving his skills also helps him stay even-keeled.

He says his biggest steps as a player this year are in his technique, and how he uses his hands and feet in his pass rushing. He feels more comfortable reading offenses as well, ensuring his eyes don’t get caught in the wrong place.

He’s a key part of a defense that ranks first in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense (4.8 points per game), total defense (173.7 yards per game), rushing defense (44.7 ypg) and passing defense (129.0 ypg).

Sacrificing so others succeed

With breakout stars such as Baun and inside linebacker Chris Orr, getting recognition on UW’s defense this season is tough.

But Burks’ teammates know how his play impacts the game. He might not be the one to get the sacks or tackles for loss, but those plays wouldn’t work without him doing his job.

“In his pass rushes, he’s constantly getting there at least. It might be a step behind, but he’s in the quarterback’s face or he’s in the backfield, he’s setting a firm edge, and he’s helping everybody make plays,” Orr said.

Junior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk works with Burks often on the field. Loudermilk and Burks communicate different pass-rush schemes and share what they see from the offense. He said having someone as dependable and, yes, consistent as Burks makes the task easier.

“He’s definitely a guy that the coaches can look at and put him out there and not think twice about it,” Loudermilk said. “They don’t have to think how he’s going to do against this guy, he’s someone who you can put out there and he’s going to get the job done.”

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