The bar has been set high for the outside linebackers on the University of Wisconsin football team.
Junior Zack Baun and Co. not only understand that. They embrace it.
“There’s a standard set,” Baun said, “and just making sure you meet that standard every practice, every game, every rep is important.”
Ever since the Badgers shifted to a 3-4 defense five years ago, outside linebackers have been piling up big numbers.
Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert combined for 30 tackles for loss in 2014. The next season, the pair totaled 33½ TFLs and 17½ sacks.
In 2016, T.J. Watt had 15½ TFLs, 11½ sacks and 13 quarterback hurries in his only season as a starter before leaving school early and becoming a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
A pair of first-year starters stepped up as seniors last season. Garret Dooley led the team with 12 TFLs and 7½ sacks, while Leon Jacobs added 9½ TFLs and a team-high eight quarterback hurries.
One of the key questions this season on UW’s defense — a unit in the process of replacing eight starters — is can Baun, senior Andrew Van Ginkel and others keep the ball rolling at outside linebacker?
“I feel confident where we’re at,” Van Ginkel said.
Van Ginkel, who arrived at UW as a junior-college transfer last season, is poised for a big final season with the Badgers. He had 10 TFLs, 6½ sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in backup duty as a junior.
Meanwhile, Baun has the tools to be the next breakout player at a position group that is now under new leadership. Bobby April took over as the outside linebackers coach after Tim Tibesar left to become the defensive coordinator at Oregon State.
Baun, a former standout quarterback at Brown Deer, missed last season with a broken left foot and is eager to make up for lost time.
“You can tell he’s excited to be back,” Van Ginkel said. “He’s just been flying around. You can tell he loves the game and really missed it. That’s a plus.”
Added Baun: “I just want to prove to myself that I can do it. I just want to prove to myself that I’m capable of playing in the Big Ten.”
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Baun can use his quickness in pass-rushing situations and is comfortable in pass coverage. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said after a recent practice that he’s impressed with how much progress Baun has made.
“He’s never been able to go consistently because of injuries, so you always saw flashes,” Leonhard said. “Very athletic and the physicality was there, he did some great things on special teams, but defensively it was never consistent enough because of reps and health. So now I think you’re really seeing him grow into being more comfortable on the field and making plays. From an athletic standpoint and a speed standpoint, he brings something different to the table for us.”
Behind Van Ginkel and Baun are junior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Christian Bell.
Johnson, a former walk-on from Menasha, had two TFLs, two forced fumbles and a sack last season. Bell, who began his career at Alabama, had a sack in limited action.
“That whole group is still trying to figure out their roles,” Leonhard said. “We know what Andrew can provide us, we have a pretty good idea what Zach can do and outside of outside, I think it’s guys really battling and trying to figure out what it is: Am I a pass rusher? Can I play every down? How reliable can I be? How much of the game plan are they going to be able to pick up week in and week out?
“We’re trying to put them in as many situations as possible just to find out and give the coaches a good idea going into the season where we think they’re at.”
One thing is certain: This group is going to do whatever it can to make sure there’s no dropoff this season.
“We understand that there are high expectations because the guys that played before us really did a lot of good things for the team,” Johnson said. “They set a really good example for us.”