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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Wisconsin’s fresh linebacker corps shows promise against UCF

[media-credit name=’Derek Montgomery’ align=’alignnone’ width=’648′]SandersDontez_DM_400[/media-credit]Newly hired linebacker coach and defensive coordinator Bret Bielema has reason to smile this week after an encouraging exhibition by his young linebackers.

The departure of several veterans after 2003, including team tackle leaders Alex Lewis and Jeff Mack, left the Wisconsin linebacker corps in shambles. Coming off a solid performance against the University of Central Florida, his rebuilt group took a big step in erasing much of the doubt lingering overhead prior to the season opener.

On paper the afternoon appeared flawless, though stats often prove deceiving.


Some noticeable errors, chiefly the missed tackles perpetrated by almost every starter, slightly tarnished the afternoon. Yet, considering the catastrophe many were braced for game-day morning, the well-prepared group came to the ball with more vigor than one would expect from such an inexperienced squad.

“There were some things we changed in the way the linebackers play,” Bielema said. “Not big changes but little things in the way they learn, the way they balance things, and [to] put it in terms that made them understand their piece of the puzzle that I gotta put together to make the whole thing complete. It’s not an individual thing; it’s the sum of all our parts.”

The tenacity embedded in the linebackers paid dividends against the Golden Knights, holding their rushing game to a measly 53 yards and assisting the pass rush, which racked up four sacks on UCF quarterback Steven Moffett.

Despite being conspicuously green in playing experience, the corps possesses the speed to swarm on any Big Ten running game. Against UCF, Bielema molded that ability into a functional run-stopping unit — assisted by the veteran talent of the Badgers’ formidable defensive line.

“We gotta play hard and play together,” sophomore middle linebacker Reggie Cribbs said. “We have a lot of experience in front of us and a lot of experience behind us. Plus, we’re a very fast defense and have a lot of erasers. So if we’re well prepared, then we just go out there and play football.”

Now the group prepares for the challenges ahead — eleven of them to be exact, barring the failure to secure a bowl berth. One concern remains paramount early in the season: they’re not always wrapping up on tackles.

It’s an issue common to young defensive players across the board and Bielema plans to approach it with a calmed sense of urgency.

“There were several things that we did poorly on Saturday at every position, nobody’s going play the perfect game,” Bielema said. “Our kids are always going to try to improve upon all the little things they need to get right [next] Saturday.”

Outside linebackers Dontez Sanders and Mark Zalewski, as well as Cribbs, all missed tackles that translated into important plays for UCF.

Playing in a conference perpetually focused on the philosophy of ‘run first, ask questions later,’ coaches stress the critical importance of effective tackling. The hard-working Wisconsin linebackers are first to recognize the room for improvement.

“I missed a tackle, and that set with me throughout the whole game,” Cribbs lamented. “Other guys said, ‘forget about it, there’s always the next play.’ But I missed a tackle, and that always hits you hard. I did make a lot of mistakes — it wasn’t by far a perfect game. The more I play the more experience I get and the more comfortable I become.”

The University of Nevada Las Vegas along with breakaway threat Dominique Dorsey awaits the Badgers on Saturday. Dorsey racked up 100 yards in 26 carries in the 2003 triumph at Camp Randall and the senior rusher appears poised for his most explosive campaign yet.

The elusive runner cuts with the best of NCAA tailbacks and recent training reports show him clocked at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Despite his daunting backfield exploits, the linebackers feel confident they can rise to the challenge.

“It’s hard to run a 4.35 (second) 40 when he’s got 10 guys surrounding him,” Sanders said. “Hopefully we can play good as a group and keep him in the box. Keep that 4.35 down to five flat.”

In the Rebels’ 42-17 opening day stomping, courtesy of the Tennessee Volunteers, the versatile tailback powered the otherwise sputtering UNLV offense. Dorsey scorched the Vols for 230 all-purpose yards, including 121 rushing yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries.

In the face of such a ground threat, the young corps prepares to make halting Dorsey a team effort.

“One thing you gotta realize with a football player like [Dorsey] is there are no magical schemes,” Bielema said. “There’s nothing you can do on defense other than play sound fundamentals to keep him in front of you and let people come to the football together. He’s the type of guy that you just can’t get one [player] on assignment to tackle him, it’s how well we play together and how well we swarm to the football that’s going to make the difference on Saturday.”

According to Bielema, one of the keys to success against any tough running game lies in maintaining an air of confidence. Exhibiting the attitude that the young corps can contain any runner may prove pivotal in the games to come.

“If you look and show someone that they’ve got you, then they’ll attack what they think they’ve got you on,” Bielema explained. “If you walk around eyes up, shoulders back looking like you know what’s going on, and are assertive with all your calls … We always say, ‘be loud, be clear, be confident.'”

Although the performance against UCF showed the immense strides taken since Bielema started working from scratch, doubts still drift overhead regarding the linebackers’ ability to harness Big Ten caliber offenses.

“Truthfully, the critics are going to say what they’re going to say,” Cribbs said. “All we can do is go out there and play football. They’re going to always find something wrong.”

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