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MADISON - During one of the first position meetings following the Capital One Bowl, Vince Biegel took stock of the linebacker’s meeting room.
Chris Borland’s seat was empty, as one of the greatest players in school history had finally exhausted all of his eligibility. Gone with him were Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly and Conor O’Neill, three players that put up career numbers in their final season with the program.
It certainly appears to be a daunting task for any unit, let alone a room with 15 linebackers who combined to start seven games. But while the personnel in the room has changed, Biegel looked around and saw a group that had the same want and desire to be great.
“Obviously a lot of key guys are gone, but I think we have a lot of guys who have high expectations,” said Biegel. “We have a lot of guys who have experience that can step up and be contributors this year.”
With the linebacker position being one of the biggest questions this upcoming season, the Badgers are looking to attempt to replace the experience and impact of Borland and company. To say the Badgers lost an incredible player in Borland is an understatement. He was named to various first and second All-American teams and has been said to be one of the most instinctive players in recent history.
“Young men have to just do what they can do and not try to replace a great one,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “They just have to play within the defense, play within the scheme.”
Entering the second year of the 3-4 defense under Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the Badgers have options and spent the offseason retooling their defense. Senior Derek Landisch is the only linebacker on the roster who has started more than two games, but the Badgers have a handful of bodies, like junior outside linebacker Joe Schobert and fifth-year senior Marcus Trotter, who started at least one game last year and have plenty of playing time under their belts.
“We do have some people that have started games,” said Andersen. “I think that will continue to help us as we move forward when we have years where we have a lot of kids graduate or have a lot of players that started leads because we have so many packages on defense.”
Flexibility is one of the big benefits Wisconsin’s defense should receive this year. After playing with a number of upperclassmen pigeonholed into one position, Aranda has moved pieces around in the offseason designed to create different looks for opposing offenses and cause more pressure on quarterbacks.
“We have plenty of guys that have valuable experience,” said Schobert, who had 18 tackles and 2.5 TFLs last season. “We feel that we haven’t lost a beat even with the loss of Chris.”
Although he’s not the most season member of the corps, Biegel has emerged as one of its leaders. After rotating in on certain packages with Kelly to give the Badgers more speed on the field, the redshirt sophomore spent the offseason improving his pass rushing and mastering the playbook for his position and all the other linebacker positions.
“I wanted to become professional at what I do,” Biegel said. “I wanted to learn the playbook inside and out, not just as a pass rusher or pass coverage guy. I wanted to know what the whole puzzle looked like in the end.”
While the group of linebackers is young with five freshmen in the group, not to mention other true freshmen rotating in on certain packages, the fact that Wisconsin has one of the most experience offensive lines in the country has made the group get experienced in a hurry, especially since footwork, technique and hand placement is a essential to gain an advantage on a group that has five players with starting experience.
“Going against guys like Rob (Havenstein) and Tyler (Marz), two great offensive tackles, every single day is certainly not hurting,” said Biegel. “It’s advantage for me going against those guys, working that rep and getting better.”
It’s still the first week of camp and the whole group hasn’t been together on the field at one time yet, but the confidence brewing from the veterans will be huge going into the season opener against LSU in just over three weeks.
“We are excited to play against such a high-caliber team and we are confident in our defensive ability,” said Schobert. “We will rely on the new packages to be effective when needed.”
Chris Fowler contributed to this report