No team wants to replace someone like Mike Taylor. A 6-foot-2 co-captain from Ashwaubenon, Wis., Taylor was a mainstay at linebacker for three and a half seasons for the Badgers who piled up tackles and helped lead the team through some tough stretches in 2011 and 2012.
But the Badgers should make a smooth transition at linebacker this fall, even though Taylor amassed 14 percent of Wisconsin's total tackles during his final two years on campus. That's a big chunk of tackles to replace, and it sounds a little daunting until you see that Chris Borland nearly matched Taylor tackle-for-tackle over the last two seasons. What's more- Ethan Armstrong wasn't far behind Borland, either. Borland and Armstrong combined for 197 tackles in 2012, and both players are expected to hold on to their starting jobs this fall.
So while losing Taylor would be a big blow for most teams, the Badgers aren't lacking for playmakers at linebacker. The Badgers will certainly miss Taylor's leadership and experience, but of Wisconsin's three defensive units the linebackers have the potential to make the smoothest transition into the 3-4 defense. There's really just one question I have about the linebackers this fall, solely because the Badgers need to sort through one of their deepest position groups before they figure out how best they can use the linebackers in their new scheme.
Who starts along with Borland and Armstrong?
For the most part, I expect Borland and Armstrong to start as inside linebackers for the Badgers. Both players are athletic enough to play on the outside, and of the two Armstrong is the most likely bet to get some snaps on the edge. But even with Borland and Armstrong back the Badgers still need to find two starters at outside linebacker.
Brendan Kelly seems like a safe bet to win one of those spots. Kelly plays defensive end in a 4-3, but the Badgers moved him back to linebacker this spring. The Badgers like his athleticism, and at 6-foot-6 and 258-pounds he fits the prototypical mold that the Badgers are looking for at that position. Kelly will have to stay healthy in his sixth year on campus if he wants to make the most of the medical waiver the NCAA granted him after last season. But if he stays on the field, I can't see anyone else taking a starting spot from him.
The other outside linebacker spot is much more wide open. The Badgers also shifted senior defensive end Tyler Dippel back to linebacker, and he's got a good frame for the position. But Dippel has struggled with injuries too, and now he's got some younger players hot on his heels. Joe Schobert saw playing time as a true freshman last year, and he really impressed defensive coordinator Dave Aranda during the spring at outside linebacker. Schobert took advantage of the extra reps he got during the spring, and I expect that he'll see the field a lot as a sophomore, even if he doesn't win a starting job this fall.
Keep an eye on Vince Biegel too. A 6-foot-3 Wisconsin Rapids native, Biegel was recruited as a linebacker and will play on the outside for the Badgers in the 3-4. He has pretty much any athletic tool you could want at this position, but I think a few other older players have an edge on him for playing time. Biegel is going to be a very productive player for the Badgers if he stays on his current track, and he has a perfect opportunity to show the coaches what he can do when fall camp opens up.
The Badgers also have Jesse Hayes waiting in the wings. A 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore from Cincinnati, Hayes has been adding weight to his frame since he arrived on campus, and he showed some play making ability during the spring. I'm interested to see how he looks after another summer of conditioning, and I think he has a good chance to crack the two-deep this fall.
And that's just the outside linebackers- the Badgers have a few other players on the inside who should see the field this year. Conor O'Neill, Derek Landisch, and Marcus Trotter will all battle for playing time this fall behind Borland and Armstrong, and they all have some interesting skill sets. O'Neill is one of their better defenders in pass coverage, and Landisch draws a lot of comparisons to Borland, both because of his size and because he just seems to make plays when he's on the field. Trotter is a solid player as well, but it will be hard for him to separate himself from the pack this fall with so many other players jostling for playing time.