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:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line
Inside linebackers