After a sports summer dominated by “‘The Decision”‘ and some more age-old indecision by a certain age-old quarterback, I’ll take the liberty of assuming you’re thinking the same thing I am at this point — it’s good to be back.
As Madison continues to return to form, Bret Bielema’s squad has been doing the same since Aug. 9, the opening of fall camp. With everyone and their mother hopping on the Badger bandwagon this summer — even the big boys at ESPN — expectations are as high as they have been since 2008.
Yet, if you remember that campaign, you’ll recall those sky-high expectations resulted in a 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten season that was undoubtedly a disappointment. This year, however, the vibe is different, and the Badgers have the potential to best not only those lackluster results of two years ago, but also the entire conference.
If, that is, the defense stays healthy.
In as team-oriented a sport as football, designating one factor as the “key” to the success of a team may be a bit extreme. Yet, if these Badgers are to avoid another major letdown, maintaining the health of the defense is of utmost importance.
Already this fall camp, sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor, junior linebacker Kevin Claxton and senior linebacker Culmer St. Jean have missed time with injuries. Notice a trend? Linebackers will surely be at a premium this season. Not to mention, senior strong safety Jay Valai, one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense, missed several practices with a concussion, and possible starting defensive tackle Jordan Kohout was out for a significant period of time with a bone bruise on his knee.
Yes, injuries to linebackers are nothing new, and fall camp is just fall camp. However, the August injury report does reveal an honest assessment of the depth of this year’s roster.
“If we were playing tomorrow, I’d be really, really worried,” defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said after practice last week.
Particularly in regard to his linebackers, Doeren was concerned.
“It’s decimated right now,” Doeren said of his linebacker unit. “Healthy, we got a ton of depth. But right now, we just got a lot of guys — none of them are serious injuries, they’re all guys that will be back within a week — today, there were five of them watching.”
So, with these normally media-savvy coaches already using words such as “decimated” and “really, really worried”, what’s going to be said on October 2, when Big Ten play begins against Michigan State in East Lansing? Or two weeks later, when Ohio State invades Camp Randall? Or, once again, one week later in Iowa City?
Now, before you crumple up the paper, chuck it in the trash and write me off as just an alarmist hack looking to raise trouble, let me present a reason for optimism: senior linebacker Blake Sorensen.
Despite only having three starts at linebacker in his three years at UW, Sorensen has continually played a significant role in the Badger defense. Last year, the Eden Prairie, Minn. native played in all 13 games and proved his worth in the rotation, recording a career-high eight tackles against Northwestern and picking off his first pass against Hawaii. For the year, the former Mr. Football in Minnesota finished with 40 tackles — up from 14 apiece the previous two years — 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
A player in Sorensen’s mold, though, does not have his worth accurately measured by statistics.
“I love how smart he is, the way he sees football and learns it,” Doeren said of the senior linebacker. “His confidence in his own ability and knowledge base of our big picture — I wish I had five of him.”
Coming from the generally even-keel Doeren, that praise speaks volumes of Sorensen’s ability. When Taylor — who originally tore the ACL in his right knee in week seven last season — was forced to have surgery again Aug. 17, reports had the starting outside linebacker out until possibility the MSU game. Consequently, Sorensen was thrust into the spotlight as the savior of the linebacker corps. This past week, the prognosis seemed to improve, though, as Bielema did not rule out Taylor for the opener.
Regardless of when Taylor returns, Sorensen will see plenty of playing time, and knows how he will make his impact.
“Just versatility,” Sorensen said of his best attributes. “I’m a senior, so I know all the positions pretty well and I feel like I can hop in any spot and do what the coaches ask and not miss a beat.”
With running back John Clay garnering potential Heisman hype, quarterback Scott Tolzien receiving plenty of attention as leader of the offense and the mammoth offensive line picking up numerous preseason accolades, the defense has partly slid under the radar thus far. Given the depth the offense boasts at receiver, running back and on the O-line, the defensive depth chart raises more question marks.
With Sorenson filling in for Taylor, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland manning the opposite outside linebacker spot and St. Jean roaming the middle of the unit, Doeren’s defense looks quite capable.
Or, with Taylor healthy and Sorensen serving as the primary backup for all three linebacker spots, complimenting a deep defensive line and strong secondary, that defense has the potential to be something even better.
“Just normal Wisconsin football,” Valai said of his defense. “Physical, tough and aggressive, man. Don’t taking nothing from nobody; don’t take ‘blank’ from nobody.”
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Like Sorensen’s role on the D? Worried about the depth? Let him know at email@example.com.