What the future holds: Outside linebacker

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Outside linebackers:

Returning: Andrew Van Ginkel (SR), Zack Baun (JR), Tyler Johnson (JR), Christian Bell (RS SO), Noah Burks (RS SO), Izayah Green-May (RS FR)

Leaving: Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs

Arriving: C.J. Goetz (3-star), Mason Platter (3-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Who’s next? 

For the second straight year, Wisconsin needs to replace two players likely headed to NFL careers in Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs. In total, the Badgers should have five former outside linebackers on league rosters this fall, as that duo joins Cleveland’s Joe Schobert, Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Green Bay’s Vince Biegel.

“You’re losing some extremely valuable pieces to this defense,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Dooley and Jacobs prior to the Orange Bowl in December. “You look at the guys we’ve lost at that position the last couple years, and to me, [the losses are] just as crucial this year.”

Finding suitable replacements will be a daunting task for whoever takes over coaching the outside linebackers in place of Tim Tibesar, who is now running Oregon State’s defense. But that person will have options.

What we know for sure is that Andrew Van Ginkel is the real deal. A rare junior college transfer for Wisconsin, the senior was a big-play machine down the stretch in 2017. He helped keep the Badgers in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State with his interception return for a touchdown and sparked Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl with another interception.

“Obviously, we feel very good with Andrew Van Ginkel,” Leonhard said. “He’s been a big time playmaker for us. He really brings something different to the table than those other guys.”

Who starts opposite Van Ginkel will be one of the key storylines to watch during spring practice and in fall camp. Among the candidates is Zack Baun. A member of the rotation in 2016, Baun suffered a season-ending injury last August.

“He would have been a contributor,” Leonhard said of Baun, who played quarterback in high school. “He flashes. He’s very athletic.

“Very similar to (inside linebacker) T.J. Edwards where experience on the defensive side of the ball was rather low, so he was learning a lot early on. You expected him to take a big jump, and all of a sudden he obviously hits a roadblock [with the injury].”

Another option will be walk-on Tyler Johnson. He essentially served as the fourth outside linebacker in 2017, managing a pair of tackles for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles.

“All he does when you put him on the field is make plays,” Leonhard said of Johnson.

Beyond that, redshirt sophomores Christian Bell and Noah Burks, along with redshirt freshman Izayah Green-May, will compete for snaps. Incoming recruits C.J. Goetz and Mason Platter will join them in the fall.

“Some of those young outside linebackers, it’s going to be their time,” Leonhard said. “They’ve got to have a big offseason in the weight room. They’ve got to have a big offseason just learning football and being more confident.”

Predicted depth chart:

1st-team OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel (SR), Zack Baun (JR)
2nd-team OLB: Tyler Johnson (JR), Christian Bell (RS SO)

What the future holds:
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line
Inside linebackers

(6) Wisconsin 34, (10) Miami 24: Two-minute drill

MIAMI — Quarterback Alex Hornibrook tossed four touchdowns as Wisconsin beat Miami 34-24 in the Orange Bowl.

Play of the Game

Wisconsin was in trouble. Trailing 14-3 at the start of the second quarter, Miami had a chance to go up three scores. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel had other plans. Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier tried to throw a little quick screen and the Badgers’ junior stepped in the way and made the athletic interception.

The play proved to be the turning point in the game. Wisconsin would score 21 unanswered and didn’t trail again.

Game Balls

Offense: Alex Hornibrook

He received plenty of criticism this season, but the quarterback was fantastic most of the night. He threw four touchdowns, trusting his receivers in one-on-one coverage and they came through for him.

On the biggest drive of the season — after Miami had cut Wisconsin’s lead to 27-24 early in the fourth quarter — the sophomore led an 8-play, 75-yard drive that he finished off with a 6-yard scoring toss to Danny Davis. Hornibrook went 6-of-6 with five first downs and the touchdown.

It was an absolute must for Wisconsin to put together a drive and Hornibrook delivered his best of the season.

Defense: Andrew Van Ginkel

Van Ginkel was responsible for the biggest defensive play of the game — his second quarter interception — but he was big at other points as well. He finished with three tackles, including a sack, and nearly had another interception in the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin has rarely gone the junior college route in recruiting, but Van Ginkel ended up being an absolute steal. He’ll be one of the Badgers most important players in 2018.

Special Teams: Rafael Gaglianone

As he did all season, the Wisconsin kicker was money. He drilled a pair of kicks, including a 47-yarder. The junior finished the season 16-of-18 on the season and now sits just five field goals short of the most in school history.

Videos of the game

Much was made of the “turnover chain” Miami breaks out every time they force a turnover and they had a chance to use it once on Saturday night. But the Badgers had their own celebration with a chain and they got to use it a lot of more than the Hurricanes. Like on every one of their four touchdowns.

If that wasn’t clear enough as to how they felt about the turnover chain, then the video that caught Paul Chryst’s comments on it definitely should.

In their own words

“It’s awesome. That’s a record. No one has done that. That is something we all have to be proud of, and we are. Winning 13 games in a season is not easy.”

— LT Michael Deiter on Wisconsin winning a school-record 13 games

“It’s lit!”

— Wisconsin CB Derrick Tindal on the feeling of winning the Orange Bowl in his hometown

In Case You Missed It

— Running back Jonathan Taylor finished with 133 yards on the night and 1,926 yards for the season. The latter mark set the record for the most yards by a freshman in FBS history.

— Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs played his 59th career game — the most in NCAA history

— Cornerback Nick Nelson announced after the game he will forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.

— Offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel told reporters he will return for his senior year.

— Offensive lineman Michael Deiter and linebacker T.J. Edwards told reporters they haven’t decided whether they will return or leave for the NFL.

— Miami coach Mark Richt was flagged for contacting an official late in the first half. He was apparently upset over a non-call on the Badgers.

Inside the Numbers

13 — That’s the number of wins the Badgers had this season — the most in school history.

3 — That’s the number of touchdown catches for freshman wide receiver Danny Davis — the first player to record multiple touchdowns in a bowl game for the Badgers.

25 — That’s the number of touchdowns Alex Hornibrook threw this year — the second-most in school history.

What’s Next

Spring practice

Grading the Badgers: Linebackers

During the 2017 season Wisconsin’s defense allowed only 92.6 yards per game. A big reason for that was the play of the linebackers.

The position group received contributions from numerous players this season. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley, and Leon Jacobs were the leaders while Chris Orr and Andrew Van Ginkel all contributed when their numbers were called. Edwards, Dooley, Connelly, and Jacobs all received some type of All-Big Ten recognition, with Edwards being recognized as an All-American as well.

Connelly was the team leader in tackles with 80 in total, as well as 3.0 sacks. Edwards was behind him with 75 stops, 2.0 sacks, and also was tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including one of them returned for a touchdown. He added in seven passes defended as well.

Jacobs, Dooley, and Van Ginkel were behind those two in terms of tackles, but were able to find the quarterback more often. The trio combined for 15 sacks on the season, including a team high 6.0 from Dooley. Orr also was able to find the quarterback for sacks on three occasions, despite missing four games on the season.

All of the honors that this group received were well deserved. The 92.6 yards rushing per game allowed was the lowest among FBS schools in the country. Wisconsin allowed 3.0 yards per carry as well, which ranked tied for sixth.

Linebackers are often thought of as the leaders of the defense, and it’s hard to argue that with this group. The Badgers got fantastic play from this group all year, no matter which players were in.

The game against Ohio State is obviously the black eye on this group, as it was the entire defense. Even in that game, the linebackers made their fair share of plays, including Van Ginkel’s interception of J.T. Barrett returned for a touchdown. Van Ginkel also forced and recovered a fumble deep inside Ohio State territory that the Badgers turned into a field goal.

GRADE: A – This group was the biggest reason as to why Wisconsin had the best statistical defense in the country. Allowing under 100 yards per game rushing is something that doesn’t happen by accident. Edwards was more than deserving of his All-American honors and will likely be selected in next spring’s NFL Draft if he decides to forego his eligibility.

Wisconsin’s linebackers were arguably the best position group on the team in 2017, and are more than deserving of their ‘A’ grade.