April 27, 2009

Post spring camp: Linebackers

MADISON, Wis. - If any position's starters separated themselves from the potential backups more than the Wisconsin linebackers did this spring, one would be hard pressed to make a case for it.

After losing two long established, veteran and multi-year starters at the conclusion of the season in DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean filled in their voids nicely this spring.

In doing so, Jaevery McFadden, who manned the middle in 2008, was allowed to move back to his natural position on the weak side. When in space, McFadden is able to utilize his closing speed and solid tackling skills in a more effective manner than he did last season at the mike.

"Jaevery is just better on the edge I believe," UW linebacker coach Randal McCray said midway through spring ball. "We needed him to play last year, so he played inside. Now he's on the edge of things and you see his speed when he's running around and things like that.

"I think he's doing a pretty good job."

After breaking his hand last season, McFadden had to play the majority of the season with a club on his hand. That made it incredibly difficult for him to play at his highest level simply because he couldn't use his hand and fingers to wrap up and complete the fundamentally sound tackle.

This spring, he is completely back to normal, only with a significant scar on his hand.

"You might as well cut your hand off," McFadden said in regards to playing with the club last season. "You're playing with a cut off hand on your right hand. You just got one hand. You got no fingers, no wrist, you just got a nub on your right hand.

"So, you basically are just playing with a nub on your right arm and just going out there and try to make plays. Just diving and putting your body on the line to make plays, you can't wrap up or nothing."

This spring, McFadden, who is arguably the most vital to the linebacker success, was back to his normal self. He has good acceleration, can drop into coverage and is one of the best tacklers on the defensive side of the ball.

Otherwise, Sorensen, who started a couple games last season due to injury, added some weight to his frame so he can withstand the rigors of the physical Big Ten schedule. He currently weighs around 235 pounds and that is where he feels that is the best weight for him to play at.

"Obviously guys play heavier and lighter," Sorensen said. "But for me, I think that was a good weight so my body holds up. I still feel fast."

Finally, in the middle, St. Jean was slowly exhibiting his football instincts throughout the spring. He is a big body that has the ability to break through the offensive line and wreak havoc in the backfield, or drop back into coverage against an opposing tight end.

"With me, Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen, we definitely are trying to get a little identity for us," McFadden said. "We're going to wait for that during the season, but as far as right now, we are trying to get mentally and physically tough, get that toughness back that Wisconsin always used to have.

"Just go out there and be the team that doesn't beat ourselves."

While the starters did seem to separate themselves more over the backup backers, that doesn't mean the young players behind the starters did not utilize spring to improve.

In the limited time he received while battling nagging injuries, Mike Taylor had plenty of the UW coaches excited. He was incredibly explosive especially when blitzing and seemed to have a great knack for the ball.

But hopefully for Taylor, the limited reps this spring hopefully won't become a continuing trend when fall camp starts in August.

Otherwise, Tony Megna really had a standout spring camp. He doesn't have the biggest body, but plays like he is a man among boys. He flies around, breaks up passes in coverage and is a sure tackler. He may not contribute much this fall, but if he continues to develop through the weight room, he will have an impact before his career is over.

Finally, Leonard Hubbard and Kevin Rouse both made strides through spring, but also suffered their own setbacks which comes to be expected for young players.

"The guys we got to bring along are Kevin Rouse, Leonard Hubbard and Matthew Groff and Tony Megna," McCray said. "Tony is making a lot of good plays for us, old Oak Creek (Wis.) guy. It's good to see the younger guys make plays, now they just got to be consistent."

Unfortunately, the linebackers as a unit lost a key reserve when Erik Prather suffered a serious knee injury midway through camp when trying to make a tackle during a Saturday scrimmage. The injury could very well end his career as a Badger.

"He was doing a good job," McCray said. "Erik's a tough kid. He'll come back and do what he can depending on what the doctors say."

Projected depth chart:

Strong:
-Blake Sorensen, JR.
-Tony Megna, SO.
-Mike Taylor, FR.

Middle:

-Culmer St. Jean, JR.
-Leonard Hubbard, FR.
-Kevin Rouse, SO.

Weak:

-Jaevery McFadden, SR.
-Matthew Groff, FR.

As compared to this time a year ago:

Following spring ball, the depth seemed to be pretty strong a year ago. With the starters set to be Levy, Casillas and McFadden, the Badgers had St. Jean and Sorensen readily available off the bench.

Now, with both St. Jean and Sorensen moving into the starting rotation, someone of the young core of linebackers will likely need to step up. While the starting lineup has plenty of experience and should be solid, the depth may not be quite as strong as it was this time a year ago.

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