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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Current UW outside linebackers strive to emulate former Badger greats

This past weekend, T.J. Watt recorded two sacks, seven tackles and an interception.

In the same game, Joe Schobert recorded nine combined tackles before Jonathan Casillas had two solo tackles of his own later that night.

Watt, Schobert and Casillas will always be Badgers, but make no mistake, these outside linebackers now play their football on Sundays, providing an example to No. 10 Wisconsin’s (2-0) current unit of what they can achieve in the future.

“That was my roommate three years ago,” said fifth-year senior outside linebacker Leon Jacobs on his former teammate Watt. “So I’ve seen him when he got hurt two years in a row, and he came back and told me he was switching from tight end to outside linebacker.”

That Jacobs saw Watt at his lowest point, when it looked like injuries could end his career, makes the rookie’s debut performance even more special for the current Badger and his teammates.

Watt’s statline of two sacks in his debut had never before been recorded by a Pittsburgh Steeler (since the statistic became in 1982). Furthermore, his three-time defensive player of the year brother, J.J. Watt — who also played at Wisconsin — has never once posted two sacks and an interception in a contest.

“He’s worked his tail off all these years and he’s reached his goal, and obviously he’s gonna keep striving for greatness,” said redshirt senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley. “Obviously that’s something that’s one of my goals as well.”

Now, with last year’s unit of Watt and Vince Biegel (a rookie for the Packers), no longer in Madison, responsibility has been turned over to Jacobs and Dooley as the anchors of one of the team’s most significant positions.

Though Dooley backed up Watt and Biegel in 2016, Jacobs is less experienced in the position, having played outside linebacker in 2013 and 2014 before moving inside and also playing fullback before last season.

Furthermore, the unit’s primary backup, junior Andrew Van Ginkel, is playing in his first year for the Badgers after transferring from Iowa Western.

Jacobs and Dooley have both made note of Van Ginkel’s improvement since spring camp, as they say the Rock Valley, Iowa native has played with more physicality since camp and has gained a greater understanding of the playbook.

“They’ve taught me so much already and I’ve only been here less than a year,” Van Ginkel said of his teammates. “They’ve helped me out through everything, and their leadership on and off the field — they just have a knowledge for the defense and really have a knack for the football, so that’s really helped me.”

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Despite the relative inexperience of this outside linebackers unit, however, there are still expectations for it to be an effective, stingy group—maybe even one of the best in the country.

As much as players like Watt, Schobert and Casillas evidently provide a pathway for Badger outside linebackers to the NFL, their successes have also placed a weight on the shoulders of Jacobs, Dooley and Van Ginkel.

To Wisconsin outside linebackers, being good isn’t just important. It’s basically tradition.

“We have a standard,” said Jacobs. “What that means is that, obviously, we were ranked top-10 the past four, five years. So whatever your spot is, you better know the plays, what you’re doing. Because if not, there’s someone behind you that’ll come in there and take your spot.”

While the unit has performed without issues thus far, this Saturday’s trip to BYU will offer a more accurate look at its ability, as the Cougars should prove to be a much sterner test than previous opponents Utah State and Florida Atlantic.

Jacobs said he’d like the unit to improve its pass rush and its transitions between plays, while also cutting down on missed tackles and other mistakes.

Whether or not Jacobs, Dooley and Van Ginkel end the season in their current roles is uncertain. Players can get hurt, go through poor periods of play or even shoot up a depth chart.

But no matter what number Wisconsin’s starting outside linebackers wear, they’ll be expected to perform the job so many before them have.

That’s the “standard” of Wisconsin defense.

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