MADISON, Wis. - Just like on the defensive line the Badgers need to replace three senior starters and a fourth major contributor at linebacker for the 2014 season.
Unlike the defensive, line Wisconsin's new starters at linebacker need to have big-play ability. Finding playmakers is so crucial partly because they need to replace All-America inside linebacker Chris Borland, who registered 50 tackles for loss and finished sixth all-time at Wisconsin with 420 total tackles.
But Badgers also need to identify some difference makers because defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense depends on linebackers to make big plays while the defensive linemen tie up offensive linemen and clog running lanes.
An experienced-laden front seven helped the Badgers hold opponents to just 3.2 yards per carry last year, and they'll be hard-pressed to repeat that success with so many fresh faces stepping in up front. Here's who I'll be watching to see if they can maintain that high level of play.
Of the two starting spots it is safe to assume that senior-to-be Derek Landisch will fill one of them. Landisch started two games for the Badgers last year as part of a rotation with the now-departed Conor O'Neill, and was usually listed on the first line of the depth chart anyway. It will be more interesting to see who backs Landisch up- Garret Dooley seems like a good bet. Many pegged him for some early playing time back when he was being recruited, but he suffered a knee injury during fall camp. He'll have a chance to really show the coaching staff what he can do this spring.
As of right now the other inside linebacker spot is open now that Borland is off to the NFL. If you just went by experience then Marcus Trotter would have the inside track, but the Badgers are looking to get faster and more athletic on defense and other candidates could provide that more consistently. That's part of the reason why the Badgers decided to move Joe Schobert inside after he spent last season playing outside linebacker. He's an athletic guy who Aranda calls 'Sinatra' (because he's so smooth and fluid on the field), and my guess is that he's exactly what Aranda would like to see at that position moving forward.
The Badgers are looking for two outside linebackers after Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly vacated their starting spots. One spot- the "boundary" outside linebacker position- will probably be filled by Vince Biegel, who saw the field last year on passing downs and had three TFLs and two sacks in 13 games of part-time work. The real question is if Biegel is ready to be an every-down player. Jesse Hayes and Josh Harrison will compete for playing time, but Biegel has more experience and is already an athletic presence at linebacker.
The second spot, the "field" outside linebacker, is probably going to be occupied by Michael Caputo. The Badgers have moved Caputo to the front seven after he started for most of the season at strong safety, but he took several snaps as a hybrid safety/linebacker during those games- especially late in the season. I thought Caputo played pretty well as a safety, so moving him away from a unit that needs experience shows that the Badgers think he can make a big difference there.
At this point in time Leon Jacobs looks like the most likely candidate to back up Caputo. He avoided a redshirt in his first season on campus and made some good special teams plays during the season, and it he definitely flashed as a linebacker later on near the end of last year's fall camp. We'll see if he took any strides during the last few months, because as of now he's primed for a big step up in playing time.
Projected depth chart:
"Boundary" Outside Linebacker
Weakside Inside Linebacker
Strong-side Inside Linebacker
"Field" Outside Linebacker
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.