2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Outside Linebackers

Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Jake Kocorowski

The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.

AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.

Previous installments: Quarterbacks; running backs/fullbacks; wide receivers; tight ends; offensive line; defensive line; inside linebackers

Wisconsin recorded a school-record 51 sacks and rejuvenated its pass rush during the 2019 season. With that, credit needs to be given to redshirt senior Zack Baun for helping lead the charge as part of the outside linebacker group.

The edge rusher claimed consensus second-team All-America honors and a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection after sacking opposing quarterbacks 12.5 times and recording 19.5 tackles for loss last season.  He placed third on the team in tackles (76) and led the defense with 10 quarterback hurries. His lone interception of 2019 translated into six points, as he returned the pick 34 yards for a touchdown during UW's 38-0 win over Michigan State in mid-October.

Lined up to the opposite side of the line from Baun, Noah Burks also registered a pick-six in 2019, taking an interception 68 yards to Camp Randall Stadium's north end zone in a September victory over Northwestern. The redshirt junior started 12 of the 14 games this season, taking over for an injured Izayah Green-May against Central Michigan and not relenting his spot. He finished the season with 36 tackles, seven for loss, along with two sacks.

Redshirt sophomore Izayah Green-May kicked off the season as a starter against USF but a thumb injury also stunted his production after receiving first-team reps in spring and fall camps. He recorded five tackles and one sack.

Former walk-on Tyler Johnson finished his career as a Badger with seven tackles and one sack in 14 games, while redshirt junior Christian Bell also played what would become his final season at UW. The latter, an Alabama transfer, saw snaps in seven contests and recorded one sack.

The question for next year with this set of Badgers -- with three players from the position group departing the program -- is who steps up to continue the precedent set by Baun, Andrew Van Ginkel, Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt and Joe Schobert? The talent is there, but who becomes the next outside linebacker(s) to keep the pressure on opponents?

Player Stats

  • Zack Baun (14 games, all starts): 76 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, one pick-six versus Michigan State
  • Noah Burks (14 games, 12 starts): 36 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, one pick-six versus Northwestern
  • Tyler Johnson (14 games): Seven tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery
  • Izayah Green-May (11 games): Five tackles, one sack
  • Christian Bell (seven games): Four tackles, one sack
  • Jaylan Franklin (14 games): Two tackles, one sack

Best Performance

If one looks from a pass rushing perspective for the position group, Baun recorded three of his 12.5 sacks against Kent State on Oct 5. Despite a second half blowout in Columbus three weeks later, Baun and Burks combined for 2.5 sacks in the 38-7 loss at Ohio State.

Baun also recorded two sacks on the road at Minnesota, where UW racked up five quarterback stops behind the line of scrimmage that helped the program regain Paul Bunyan's Axe and clinch the Big Ten West division. 

Worst Performance

If looking at just pass rush production, Wisconsin only recorded one sack against Central Michigan and Iowa, then two against Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Oregon. All of those games, with the exception of the Rose Bowl, were victories.

If I look at this more from a whole for Wisconsin's defense, and along with the second half collapse at Ohio State in late October, the road win at Nebraska sticks out. Despite the all-important divisional win, UW allowed 493 yards (273 rushing, 220 passing). However in that game inside Memorial Stadium, Baun recorded two sacks while Johnson also registered one.

Question for 2020: Who Picks Up the Pressure from This Position Group?

Baun became a force to be reckoned with when facing opposing offenses. Now with the in-state product heading to the Senior Bowl before embarking on his NFL Draft journey, who will make up the 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss?

Take out of the equation Johnson, who exhausted his eligibility, as well as Bell, who announced his intention to transfer earlier this month.

This likely becomes a situation similar to the running backs in that several will have to step up to replace the production of one main player. It also will likely be the main question for Leonhard's defense for next season with starters returning on the defensive line and secondary.

Burks and Green-May could be the leading contenders to start in 2020. Each showed some flashes at times, but now with Baun gone, the two will need to step up further.

Franklin recorded a sack in mop-up time of Wisconsin's season opener and showed an ability to pass rush in that contest. He was listed at 222 pounds on Wisconsin's 2019 roster as of August. Will he, like Green-May continue to develop physically and emerge further next season?

One of the four 2019 true freshman midyear enrollees, Spencer Lytle bulked up to 223 pounds from a listed 204 during spring ball. He redshirted this season, but with the attrition at the position, there could be opportunity for him to find a role.

During player availability last month, Baun assessed of some of the younger, returning outside 'backers, in particular Franklin, Green-May and Lytle.

"To compare them to myself when I was a freshman, I'd say they are far, far ahead," Baun said on Dec. 19. "Coach (Bobby) April's been doing a really good job, and they're just smart guys. Especially Spencer in particular, is a smart guy. They just need to get there physically. It's more of a physical development than mental for them."

For that matter, C.J. Goetz transitioned from the defensive line to outside linebacker and played in 14 games with some work on special teams. Though listed as an inside linebacker on Wisconsin's online roster, walk-on Marty Strey worked in practice drills with the outside linebackers during Rose Bowl pregame activities as seen in the above video. We will see where Strey ends up a few months from now during spring practices.

That being said, when asked during availability on Dec. 29 about which younger Badgers he has seen step up during bowl prep practices, Baun discussed Strey's development.

"In the past few days, I would say Marty Strey," Baun said. "That dude has made big strides in becoming a good player, and he wants it so bad. The heart's all there and the want to is there, and he's been doing a good job taking advantage of the little opportunities he has."

Two highly-touted 2020 signees -- Nick Herbig and Kaden Johnson -- will be added to April's room for next season. Herbig confirmed with AllBadgers.com earlier this week that he will enroll in January, so the four-star Hawaii native will receive a jump start in acclimating to Wisconsin's defense during spring practices. 

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