Entering the 2017 season, senior linebacker Zack Baun was primed to be a key piece on Wisconsin’s defense after playing meaningful snaps in 2016.
Baun had appeared in 12 games in 2016, with his best performance coming against Ohio State where he had six tackles and a tackle for loss.
Baun’s 2017 season was cut short, however, when he suffered a torn lisfranc ligament in his left leg, sidelining him for the rest of the year. The injury came in late August during fall camp – a devastating blow to what looked to be a promising season for the Brown Deer, Wis. native.
That season, Baun was poised to be on the two-deep depth chart at outside linebacker after T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel were drafted in the 2016 NFL draft.
Baun missed out on the opportunity to be apart of a special defense that season – the Badgers had the third ranked defense in the country. Two years later, he is the leader of another dominant Badgers defense.
“That’s not how a lot of kids handle adversity,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said about the way Baun has come back from injury.
Baun has been dominant through four games this season – he has already accumulated three sacks, and two forced fumbles, which both lead the team. On top of that, Baun has racked up 20 tackles, which is second-most on the team behind sophomore middle linebacker Jack Sanborn.
The three sacks already surpasses his 2018 total of 2.5.
“He just continued to work,” Leonhard said. “He’s had a great approach. He’s continued to grow throughout his career the way that you hoped he would as a coach.”
Leonhard had seen glimpses of what Baun was capable of before his breakout season this year, and knew the kind of player Baun could become even as he battled through injury.
“There are certain games you put on last year where he was really dominant and disruptive,” Leonhard said. “You kind of know the potential is there. The big thing we were going to ask him to do was to be more consistent.”
Baun has answered that question with flying colors. He has had a sack in three consecutive weeks to start the year. Though he didn’t get to the quarterback against Northwestern, he still managed to accumulate seven tackles and forced the tipped pass which led to a Noah Burks interception and return for a touchdown.
Baun’s impact and growth on the field have been a result of his continued development, despite being set back with an injury. His big jump this season has been the result of a desire to continue to learn the game and learn more about himself as a player.
“He’s just kind of growing up and learning how to use his tools,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “He always had very special tools.”
Baun and senior linebacker Chris Orr have emerged as leaders on UW’s defense. Their style of leadership, however, varies greatly.
“Chris is obviously extremely vocal – that’s his leadership style,” Leonhard said. “He brings a lot of energy, he plays as fast as he can. He does it in a lot of different ways than Zach. Zach is more of a follow my example kind of guy. He’s playing very disruptive. He’s creating a lot of energy more through his play, not necessarily his voice. That’s who he is. “
Baun has had plenty of Badger linebackers to learn from before him – T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards all made their way through Madison while Baun was on the roster. Now, it’s Baun’s turn to take control of the group.
“He does a great job with his group,” Leonhard said. “I think he’s really owned that outside linebacker group. He’s brought energy and leadership through play on the field with the rest of the defense and really the rest of the team which is awesome to see. Being really productive as far as leadership goes but doing it in a completely different way which every team needs.”
Baun was a multi-sport athlete in high school, something his teammates believe helped his development. Outside of football, Baun also led Brown Deer High School to a Division 3 state title in basketball and placed in track and field at the Division 2 state meet in both the 100M and 200M. Baun has also caught the eye of his teammates.
“He’s very fast off the ball,” junior safety Eric Burrell said. “He’s always the first one to come off the ball. He’s very strong, athletic. He was a quarterback in high school so he knows a little bit of the offense. Snap counts and stuff like that.”
UW’s defense struggled to get to the quarterback all of last season. Through four games last year, they only had three total sacks – a tally Baun already matched this year alone. Through four games in the 2019 campaign, the Badgers have 12 sacks, which has helped them return to their dominant 2017 form.
Wisconsin’s outside linebacker group was a major question entering the season – the unit had a combined two starts outside of Baun. His development, and more importantly, his perseverance, has Wisconsin owning the top-ranked defense in the country.
“When you get guys to buy into the process of continuing to learn football and to learn the type of football player that you are and how you’ve got to have success, you preach it all the time. He’s just a great example of that. You see from year to year the growth,” Leonhard said.