In the world of the controlled violence that is football, the goal of a linebacker is simple: Punish the ball carrier and anyone who gets in the way. It takes a special breed of player to succeed at this grueling position, someone who relishes every opportunity for contact and exhibits unrivaled toughness. Wisconsin’s linebacking corps — Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy and Elijah Hodge — have no difficulty meeting those requirements. They thrive in such situations.
But at least to start the season, that wasn’t the case.
After an impressive defensive showcase last year, the Badgers defense, specifically the linebackers, were highly acclaimed heading into the 2007 season. Jonathan Casillas was named to the preseason watch list for the Chuck Bednarik award, given annually to the top defender in college football. DeAndre Levy had an impressive campaign in 2006, in which he started all 13 games and led the team with six sacks. Elijah Hodge, brother of Green Bay Packers linebacker Abdul Hodge, emerged as a special-teams ace and made significant contributions as a backup middle linebacker.
Unfortunately, the Badgers defense failed to live up to the high expectations set forth this year by football pundits and coaches. Blown assignments, missed tackles and a throng of injuries plagued the entire unit.
"We all had our share of injuries during camp, and it carried over into the season and limited our productivity," Casillas said.
The breaking point for the defense came after abysmal performances against Big Ten rivals Illinois and Penn State. Over the two-game stretch, the defense allowed an average of 29 points and surrendered more than 800 yards.
"It was frustrating," Levy said. "Even the games we won, it felt like we lost."
Of all the players on defense, none took more heat this season than Levy. He did not live up to his role as a hard-hitting presence on the field and saw a steep drop in his production, both statistically and fundamentally. Often caught out of position, Levy had trouble shedding blockers, and his tackling and angles of pursuit left much to be desired.
After the embarrassing loss to Illinois, Levy called himself out for failing to play to his ability.
"I was fed up. I had enough of being passive and taking punishment all season defensively," Levy said. "As a unit, we weren't playing well, and individually I felt like I wasn't doing as much as I could do. I felt like something had to be done."
Fueled by criticism and personal letdowns, Levy took the practice field with a new sense of urgency.
"I started attacking practice the next few weeks with a different mentality," Levy said. "I tried to go out and put more into [practice], and I knew I'd get more out of it."
Results from the last few weeks indicate that Levy's intensity and hard work in practice have paid off.
His transformation has been startling. The player who once seemed unfit for the rough-and-tumble role of a linebacker has shown a nasty mean streak on the field. Not only was Levy making the tackles he once missed, but he began dishing out punishment with new zeal and ferocity.
His defining game could not have come at a better time. After some deep soul-searching, Levy took it upon himself to personally dismantle Indiana's high-powered offense. During the homecoming game, fans had trouble recognizing the blur of red and white that flew across the field attacking anything that resembled a Hoosier. That "blur" was Levy, whose defensive showcase was a huge factor in the Badgers' 30 point drubbing of Indiana.
Levy, who had arguably his best performance as a Badger, notched eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Later that week, he was recognized as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, the first accolade of his college career.
"It felt good," Levy said. "It kind of surprised me, because I didn't realize that my game was that good."
It is clear from the resurgence of hard-nosed football in recent weeks that the linebackers have taken it upon themselves to transform the defense into the feared unit of the past.
"Basically, the three linebackers started stepping up," Casillas said. "Once we started making plays and committed to getting our heads on right, it kind of got the ball rolling and it carried over from game to game."
"We always had the chemistry," Hodge added. "It's just the fact that we are playing fast and playing to our abilities. Right now we are healthy, and we are all flying around."