While a lot of focus this spring season will be directed toward the Wisconsin quarterback and running back positions, there also are several defensive positions with question marks.
Among those is linebacker, where the Badgers will be without the services of graduating seniors Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy, as well as Elijah Hodge, who has decided to forego his fifth year in favor of graduating in May.
Replacing the two starters and three seniors will be a tough challenge for the Badgers over the next five months before the 2009 season kicks off.
“Those three guys — Dre, JC and even Hodge — all made a lot of tackles last year,” linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. “But, there’s not really a lot of pressure. I feel like this year we’re just trying to get back to the basics of being a physical, dominant team.”
“It’s exciting this spring with JC and DeAndre Levy leaving,” linebacker Blake Sorensen added. “Guys need to step up, and right now my name’s being called, so it’s a lot of fun. We’ve just got to try to get better this spring and improve.”
Enter juniors Sorenson and Culmer St. Jean alongside redshirt senior McFadden — who led the team in tackles with 84 as a starter in 2008 — into the starting lineup for Wisconsin.
As the current No. 1 unit at linebacker for Wisconsin in spring ball, Sorenson, St. Jean and McFadden also are the only Badgers with starting experience at the position. As a result, the questions of depth and youth at linebacker come into play.
“As far as depth, there’s guys that don’t really have that experience,” McFadden said. “But we’ve got a lot of good guys that can really play. They just need to get the playbook down and the basics of the defense to make our depth that much more reliable.”
Sorenson, a 6-foot-1-inch native of Eden Prairie, Minn., has been a reliable special teams player for the Badgers over his first two seasons while seeing some time at linebacker, but with the opportunity to enter the season as a starting outside linebacker, he knows he must make the most of it.
Not only is it Sorenson’s chance to prove he deserves the starting role, but with a lack of depth at linebacker, Wisconsin will need Sorenson to play a big role defensively in 2009.
“It’s really important; the guys are counting on me to do well, and I also put a lot of pressure on myself to do well,” Sorenson said. “I just try to come out and compete every day to try to get better.”
The 6-foot-1-inch St. Jean also played a lot on special teams last year for the Badgers before recording a career-high nine tackles while seeing extensive time at linebacker against Cal Poly and starting against Florida State in the bowl game.
St. Jean will replace McFadden at middle linebacker this season, forcing the redshirt senior to the outside and earning not only the pressure of starting, but also the added weight that comes along with playing in the middle of the Badgers’ defense.
“In my eyes, I see it as the quarterback of the defense,” St. Jean said. “I’m just trying to improve and take that leader role and make plays.”
And though two-thirds of the starting lineup is different than it was at this time a year ago, the players don’t feel like the situation they find themselves in is really much different.
“Nothing has really changed,” St. Jean said. “I played with [Sorenson and McFadden] before as the twos, so the chemistry is there and the communication is there. The only difference now is that we’re in the starting roles.”
As the only senior starting linebacker, McFadden has had to step up into a leadership role as well with the departure of Casillas, Levy and Hodge. For the 6-foot-3-inch native of Riviera Beach, Fla., the transition has been one of actions more than words.
McFadden has made an effort to be a leader wherever he can, from what he does on the field to the little things, like cleaning up after himself in the locker room.
“I’m just trying to be a leader in everything I do,” McFadden said. “Everybody is looking at me to lead with me being the oldest guy here now, and I think actions speak louder than words. So, I’m just basically trying to do the right thing all the time.”
Additionally, as the elder statesman of the group, McFadden has had the opportunity to watch both Sorenson and St. Jean develop over the last two years, giving him a good perspective on their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Sorenson and St. Jean showed what they could do Saturday in practice — the first with full pads — as they both recorded interceptions during drills against the first-string offense.
While the interceptions may not count for much in spring ball, the opportunity to pick off their own quarterbacks gives the linebackers an extra sense of confidence.
“We have a big play chart and a bad play chart, and we always compete,” St. Jean said. “Any time you can get your name on that big play chart, you get a little bragging rights and you can talk a little smack to the opposite side of the ball, so it’s fun.”
For McFadden, the key to both players is their wealth of game experience despite this being the first year in a starting role.
“Blake is a good guy — he does a lot of good things,” McFadden said. “And even though this is his first year starting, I think Blake will surprise people with what he can do.”
“Culmer has a lot of game experience, but this is his first year starting out starting,” McFadden continued. “He showed what he can do in a couple games last year, and I think those two guys are going to pick up right where JC, Dre and Hodge left off.”