Veteran linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr aren’t in Madison anymore. The two former team leaders — now residing as members of NFL defenses — supplanted themselves in Badger lore last season with a combined 24 sacks: 12.5 for Baun and 11.5 for Orr, good for third and sixth all-time in Wisconsin single-season history, respectively.
As is the nature of college athletics, Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard will be tasked with replacing that production in order to keep Wisconsin inside the nation’s top ten teams.
“We love what we brought back, but obviously we’re realistic,” Leonhard said ahead of the season opener against Illinois this Friday. “[Baun and Orr] were amazing — they had unbelievable seasons last year. We’re going to find other ways to do it, and we feel that we have guys that can step into those roles and create plays.”
Two of those ‘guys’, more specifically, would be inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.
Sanborn, a junior, got some significant time on the field last season and is being leaned on as the head of this linebacking core. He was named a Big Ten preseason All-American earlier this fall, to go with his nominations for both the Butkus Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award.
“I look at Sanborn as a guy that was so consistent for us last year,” Leonhard said. “Stepping into a different role [this year], playing with a younger player, he’s at times gotta take a bit more control of the communication. I think he’s becoming more of a dynamic linebacker for us.”
Sanborn appeared in all 14 games for Wisconsin last season alongside Orr, and recorded 80 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, and three interceptions. While Leonhard acknowledged Sanborn will have more responsibilities this season, Chenal — his ILB counterpart — is expected to hold his own in his new starting role.
“He’s impressive,” Leonhard said of the sophomore Chenal. “He’s a big strong kid that can run, and he continues to get more and more comfortable in our defense in making calls and getting everyone lined up in front of him.”
“He’s had game reps for us and has had some success. We like the energy he brings and the physicality he brings to our defense.”
That being said, the confidence in Sanborn and Chenal shouldn’t be mistaken as a plug-and-play situation with the exact same scheme as 2019. Leonhard made it very clear that the coaching staff is working to find unique ways to utilize the two guys with a newer look for the upcoming season.
“We’re not going to ask them to just do what [Orr] did, or do what [Baun] did,” Leonhard said. “We hope we can develop into that ... but it may look different, as it did the year before, and the year before that. We’re always on the search for putting our guys in the best position to be dynamic.”
Now, after months of practice and seasonal uncertainty regarding COVID-19, the continuous hype around the fresh faces in Wisconsin’s linebacking unit is bordering on tiresome and repetitive. Facing an Illinois team that’s as competitive as it's been in decades, Sanborn and Chenal will finally get an opportunity to put some numbers behind the quotes, compliments and expectations.
“This is a dangerous team if we can handle this the right way and continue to stay motivated, which I think we will,” Leonhard said.