Zack Baun thought it was finally his time. After the arduous process of turning his body from that of a high school quarterback into that of a Division I outside linebacker, and biding his time behind the likes of Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, the Brown Deer product was ready to step into an important role with Wisconsin last fall. But before he could take advantage of the opportunity, his body betrayed him. The now redshirt junior suffered a foot injury in fall camp that ended his season in August.
“It just sucks,” Baun said this spring. “You know you’re going to contribute. You know it’s your year [and] you’ve waited so long, and then the opportunity gets taken from you…It sucks. It’s not a position I would want anyone else to be in.”
Baun rehabbed hard and was 100 percent by January. He was back on the field for the start of spring practice, lining up opposite senior Andrew Van Ginkel with the first-team defense. Then, once again, he was forced to the sideline when he re-injured his surgically repaired left foot. It cost him the final three weeks of vital practice time and slightly stunted his growth as a player.
“He was looking really good,” said new outside linebackers coach Bobby April III. “If it would have happened in fall — and you miss three weeks then — that’s a big setback. Right now, he’s still part of the mental game of it. He’s getting his workouts in. He’s getting all his treatments in, so it’s not as big of a deal. It stinks that it happened, there’s not doubt, but it could be a lot worse. We’re thinking more positive right now.”
The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Baun is expected back when fall camp opens later this month. And, if he stays healthy, figures to team with Van Ginkel at a position that has produced four NFL draft picks the last three years and a total of five players on NFL teams. But this pairing figures to be a little bit different than those in the past. Baun and the 233-pound Van Ginkel are smaller than their predecessors, and it’s something they believe they can use to their advantage.
“When you look at us last year with Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, they’re obviously bigger guys. 240-pound, 250-pound bodies,” Baun said. “We’re definitely going to be a lot faster. A different play style than Leon and Garret, but I think we can make it happen, just in a different way [than them].”
Van Ginkel definitely made it happen last year when he served as the third outside linebacker behind Dooley and Jacobs. It’s not outlandish to say that without the interception he returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, and the fumble he forced in the third quarter, the Big Ten title game against Ohio State could have become a blowout for the Buckeyes. Instead, the Badgers lost by six. Three weeks later in the Orange Bowl, it was Van Ginkel’s interception in the second quarter that jump started Wisconsin on its way to a 34-24 victory over Miami.
Despite those flashes, the former junior college defensive end is a work in progress.
“He does really good in space. That’s where is knack is,” April said. “So we really need to improve on his is run block recognition, getting off blocks, playing against the run. Those are the kind of things we’ve been focusing on [with him].”
Biggest question: Who makes up the rotation?
Wisconsin has featured three to four outside linebackers in each of the five years since moving to a 3-4 defense. Tim Tibesar, who coached the position the last three seasons before leaving for Oregon State in January, loved rotating guys to keep them fresh. But he also only played guys that proved they were ready.
For April, he’s still very much in wait-and-see mode when it comes to who will be on the field this fall.
“It’s obviously way too early. We’ve got a lot of practices left. The competition is open,” April said when asked about a possible rotation. “It’s all going to depend on how guys develop.
“[Also,] I think it’s all game driven. What guys are doing against us. How much spread, how much running they’re doing, how much pass rush. It’s a really playing it by feel as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s a set number of reps you’re going to get.’”
Beyond Van Ginkel, the Badgers don’t really have a known commodity. Baun has the talent, but has struggled to stay healthy. Junior Tyler Johnson looked solid in spot duty and figures to be in the mix. Those three are the only ones with real game experience at the position.
Senior Arrington Farrar moved to outside linebacker in the spring, his third position since coming to Wisconsin.
“I think it’s an advantage for a guy to play the back to the front,” April said of Farrar moving from safety to inside linebacker and now to outside linebacker. “He understands coverages and where guys are going to be. So it’s been a pretty good transition for him. I think it’s a good spot.”
Redshirt sophomore Christian Bell is another guy that fans thought would be in the mix by now after transferring from Alabama. He saw mostly second- and third-team reps in the spring.
“He needs to diagnose the playbook a little bit better. Understand everything that’s going on and not just his role,” April said. “Play hard, compete every play. He’s done well, though.”
Others we’ll be keeping an eye on in fall camp include redshirt sophomore Noah Burks and junior Paul Jackson.
Projected depth chart:
First-team OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel (SR), Zack Baun (RS JR)
Second-team OLB: Tyler Johnson (RS JR), Noah Burks (RS SO)