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Wisconsin spring football: inside linebacker overview

A look at where the Wisconsin Badgers are at inside linebacker following spring ball.

The Wisconsin Badgers officially concluded spring camp, and now head into the summer months preparing for the fall.

While spring football is generally a time for self-improvement and overall development, the 15 extra practices also provide players the opportunity to step up and show the coaching staff that they warrant playing time come fall.

While the Badgers were confined to the McClain Center with ongoing renovations to Camp Randall, the defense under Jim Leonhard was flying around and making plays.

Over the next two weeks, All Badgers will take a position-by-position look at some of the general takeaways from the spring and what it could mean for each position group come fall.

Previously covered positions:

Up next, in our rolling spring recap series, we turn our attention to the inside linebacker position. 

Wisconsin inside linebackers Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta taking part in spring practice.  (Credit: Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Jordan Turner (No. 54) joined the first-team mid-way through spring practice and is expected to be a starter when fall camp opens.  

Under the direction of new inside linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, the Wisconsin Badgers came into the spring looking to replace the production of Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn. 

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With little time to familiarize himself with the players in the room, Sheridan divided reps based on seniority and snap counts from a season ago early on in the spring. As a result, juniors Tate Grass and Maema Njongmeta earned most of the reps with the first team for the first handful of practices. 

However, mid-way through the spring, Sheridan changed his approach, and for the final two weeks, the top group was Grass and sophomore linebacker, Jordan Turner. 

Overall, Tate Grass might have been the most consistent inside linebacker this spring. The former walk-on was tough against the run and was seemingly in the right place all the time. While he might not have some of the physical traits that the younger options bring, his knowledge of the defense and ability to consistently make plays make him a valuable leader in the linebacker room. 

Jordan Turner flashed at times last season, most notably with two interceptions in late-game situations. In addition to his coverage skills, his ability to rush the passer and flow to the ball stood out this spring. In the final practice of the spring, Turner was always near the ball on run plays and had at least one sack. While Turner is a bit thinner at 224 pounds, his quickness and athletic ability make him a nice option alongside Grass, who is more of a run defender. The duo of Grass and Turner likely head into the off-season as the presumed starters when fall practice opens up.

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The first-team tandem was not the only group that caught my eye. I liked what I saw in sophomore Jake Chaney, specifically as a blitzer. He was active in the middle of the second-team defense, and I think he is poised to make the two-deep after a strong spring. He earned time on special teams a year ago and played well.  

Maema Njongmeta's production fell off a little after shifting out of the first team defense, but the junior out of Illinois is still one of the most intelligent players on the defense overall, and I think he will see the field next season as well. 

Junior Spencer Lytle came into the spring expected to compete for a starting spot after switching to inside linebacker, but he missed the latter part of the spring with an injury. How he continues to transition from outside linebacker this summer will be important to his chances next season. He is one of the better athletes in the room and is great in coverage, so it will be interesting to see if he can make a run this fall and compete for a role in the room. 

Freshmen Bryan Sanborn, Jake Ratzlaff, and early enrollee Aidan Vaughan have the speed and athleticism to be significant contributors down the road, but as things stand, they are probably a year away based on the spring. All three are still learning the finer points of the position and adding the weight necessary for Big Ten play. I came away more impressed by their futures this spring, but I do think they are lower on the depth chart for now. Of the three, I believe Ratzlaff is the player most likely to contribute next season, especially on special teams. 

Overall, I think the Badgers have talent at inside linebacker and a lot of young depth for the future. However, how Jim Leonhard uses this group may differ from what we saw a year ago, considering the loss of Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn. Fortunately, I think the defensive line is better than a season ago, which should open up lanes for the inside linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays. 

Projected depth chart:

  1. Tate Grass (RS JR) and Jordan Turner (RS SO)
  2. Jake Chaney (SO) and Maema Njongmeta (RS JR)
  3. Spencer Lytle (RS JR) and Jake Ratzlaff (RS FR)
  4. Bryan Sanborn (RS FR) and Aidan Vaughan (FR)

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