Outside linebacker Noah Burks showing consistency on Wisconsin's defense
As outside linebacker Zack Baun headed back to the sideline after a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown in Wisconsin’s 38-0 win over Michigan State on Saturday, he recalled a fellow position-mate telling him, “Welcome to the club,” when he got to the sideline.
That was redshirt junior Noah Burks, who, himself, recorded a 68-yard pick-six earlier this season against Northwestern.
“He was moving,” Burks said about Baun on Monday. “I think he was a little over 20 miles an hour on that run back, so, I mean, I was just so excited. Emotions run high on big plays like that and seeing your guy succeed.”
If Baun ran that fast unscathed to the south end zone of Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, what about Burks’ speed? He had to elude Wildcat tacklers at a distance twice as long as Baun’s return two weeks prior.
“Mine was only a little over 18 [miles an hour]. Not very much, but to be fair, he was untouched,” said Burks, a laugh emerging in his next sentence.
“I was touched a little bit, so I don’t want to lower myself too much there.”
Baun has roughed up opposing quarterbacks and racked up impressive statistics -- 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks -- through the first six games of Wisconsin’s 2019 campaign. Also stepping up at that position group has been Burks.
Starting the last five contests heading into Saturday’s Big Ten West contest at Illinois (11 a.m. CT, BTN), the latter has tallied 11 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a pass breakup in addition to that long interception return for the touchdown.
Perhaps the word to describe the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Burks, when talking with head coach Paul Chryst, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and inside linebacker Chris Orr, might just be consistent.
“It’s just still continuing to play consistent and making the plays he needs to make for us,” Leonhard said on Tuesday. “It’s been impressive. It’s been fun to watch him play and grow throughout the early part of this season. It might not be showing up on the stat sheet every week, but when you turn the tape on on Sunday, you definitely notice his impact on the game.”
A day earlier, Chryst called out that same trait, a steadiness that he believes started well before the start of the 2019 season.
“I think what Noah’s done a really good job of, and I thought it started in the spring and then fall camp, he’s been really consistent,” Chryst said on Monday. “You’re able to rely on what he’s doing, and he’ll do it. If he’s supposed to play it a certain way, he’s going to do it. I think that it’s been also fun for me to see, and I know Coach [Bobby] April has been excited, as you continue to play and different situations come up, that when he does make plays, I think that helps.
“There’s a guy that's put in a lot of work, but it’s the first time he’s getting this type of action. I think each game, each play in each game that gives you that experience that you can kind of rely on and trust on. Certainly needs to keep growing that way, but I’ve loved the way that he’s gone about it, and I think a big part of it's been his consistency.”
The outside linebacker group needed to replace the production of outgoing Andrew Van Ginkel, who eventually was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In 27 career games, the current Miami Dolphins linebacker recorded 19.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks -- and despite fighting injury for the significant portion of the 2018 season, still led the team in sacks with 5.5.
Baun figured to be one key piece to the puzzle and has delivered so far, but others in the room needed to step up. During the spring practices open to the media in April, Burks worked in with the first-team defense in what appeared to be mostly the base 3-4 scheme.
In August, redshirt sophomore Izayah Green-May received a majority of first-team snaps alongside Baun during fall camp sessions open to reporters. Burks appeared to primarily work as part of the next linebacking group up, and the former started the season opener on the road at South Florida.
However, Green-May missed Wisconsin’s second game of the year with a right arm injury. Burks then assumed the first-team role during the home opener against Central Michigan and has taken advantage of it since. His approach throughout it all appears not to have been altered.
“I don’t think much really changed to be honest,” said Burks. “I was still doing the same thing that I’ve been doing. I think, just the opportunity was there and I know that the coaches have a lot of trust in me, and that’s what I try and do. I try and be the same guy all the time, and I think that with their trust in me, they know that they can put me out there, and I’m going to do the best I can to get my job done.”
Burks played in 21 career games, including all 13 in 2018, prior to this season. According to PFF, however, the Carmel, Ind., native played just 44 snaps on defense last year. He believes he has become more comfortable from those spring practices until now, “especially playing in some big games now, too.”
“Getting a lot of game reps, I think game reps definitely changed things a little bit because then you’ve been out there,” Burks said. “You know you’re comfortable. You know what it’s like out there.
“With the comfort level, I think that I’m very comfortable with the guys around me, too. I know that they always got my back. I know that they’re going to be doing a good job, too, and they’re going to be making plays as well, so I think playing off my teammates and then just being more comfortable as I’ve gotten game reps.”
When asked by a reporter what he has seen out of Burks -- with the stat sheets not heavily stacked but appearing to be consistent in his play -- Orr agreed.
“In the run game, in his pass rushes, he’s constantly getting there at least,” Orr said on Monday. “You know it might be a step behind, but he’s in the quarterback’s face so he’s in the backfield. He’s setting a firm edge, and he’s helping everybody on defense make plays, so I would say consistency.”
As Baun and Orr have become the standout names on the Wisconsin defense through the first games, Burks also has held up his "1/11th" in its success. The unit ranks first in several major categories, including scoring defense (4.8 points per game), total defense (173.7 yards per game), rushing defense (44.7 yards per game), passing defense (129 yards per game) and team passing efficiency defense (75.4).
Burks holds one of the four Wisconsin defensive touchdowns scored this season, and the unit has only allowed four on way to four shutouts in six contests.
What stands out to the ‘backer about his play and the performance of the unit so far? You guessed it.
“I think everyone does a great job of doing their job well,” Burks said. “Everyone’s in their right places. I think that the front seven does a great job of being in the right spots, being gap sound. I think the DBs are doing a great job in coverage and filling as well.
“Basically, we’ve seen a little adversity hit, too. We’ve been rushed back on to the field after some special teams plays, and I think that we responded really well. I think that the fake punt that Michigan State ran [on Saturday] was a testament to that. Then you see Chris [Orr] come out get a sack, and then Isaiahh [Loudermiilk] come out get a sack. All of a sudden, we’re back off the field, and you know that’s a great feeling as a D. When your back is against the wall, the momentum is against you, how are you going to respond to that?
“So I think just consistently, we’ve been doing a good job of playing consistent.”