Badgers LB corps loses experience, but gains athleticism

Michael Caputo is making the switch from safety to outside linebacker for Wisconsin in 2014. The 6-foot-1 junior is the team's leading returning tackler with 63 stops last season.  

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Many names Wisconsin football fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the middle of the Badgers’ defense in recent years are gone now. Borland. Kelly. Armstrong. O’Neill. Those four departed linebackers accounted for 239 tackles and 12.5 sacks last season.

So, what’s a linebacker corps to do? Retool and establish a different mindset with the same goals in place.

"We lost a lot of experience, a lot of good players," Badgers linebacker Joe Schobert said Saturday, following the team’s third spring practice. "But I think we have the potential to be a really fast, athletic group this year. We’re replacing those guys. Hopefully we’ll get that experience right away. I think everybody who’s going to be playing has played in games. So we know what it’s like to travel, to play in games. Most of them have started at least a couple.

"I do expect us to be a little bit faster, probably a little more athletic. Hopefully that’ll help take over for that experience we’re losing."

Indeed, the biggest element Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda hopes to add is more explosiveness to the entire defense. The Badgers ranked among the top 10 in several defensive categories a year ago, including scoring defense (No. 6) and total defense (No. 7). But Wisconsin ranked only 62nd nationally in sacks per game (2.0) and was tied for 107th in tackles for a loss per game (4.9). Those numbers can be attributed, in part, to the amount of pressure the linebackers were able to muster up front.

Still, members of the linebacker group believe they have the necessary speed and skill to make up for those deficiencies, even if they lack the overall numbers put up by their predecessors.

Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter are both senior inside linebackers with considerable experience. Landisch has played in 38 games with three starts and recorded 33 tackles last season. Trotter has appeared in 14 games with one start and tallied 23 tackles a year ago.

Landisch said he believed the unit would enter the 2014 season with something to prove.

"But something not to underestimate is just the system," Landisch said. "Coach Aranda has a great system. Getting the spring work in, guys will get caught up to speed. Coach puts us in the best possible position to make plays."

Photos of the Week: 2/23/14-3/2/14

The coaching staff made two notable position switches to create more of that speed and explosiveness at linebacker. Schobert has moved from outside linebacker to the inside, while Michael Caputo is making the switch from safety to outside linebacker.

"On the outside, you pretty much either hold the edge or you’re splattering somebody," Schobert said. "You really only have like two or three responsibilities. On the inside, depending on call or formation, you have certain gaps you have to play."

Caputo, a 6-foot-1 redshirt junior from Imperial, Pa., is the team’s leading returning tackler with 63.

"I like the move," Caputo said. "But there’s certain aspects where, with my size, I have to just get better dealing with tight ends more, fullbacks and dealing with tackles a lot more in pass rush."

Schobert, a junior from Waukesha, Wis., played in 13 games last season and made 24 tackles. He acknowledged Caputo’s move could make life easier for the inside linebackers because of his ability to create havoc in the backfield.

"He’ll be in a lot less space so his explosiveness will be a lot better, especially taking advantage of those tackles," Schobert said. "They won’t be able to stay with him, especially if he’s coming off the edge. I’m excited for him to be out there because he’s a smart player, a heady player. He’s a tough guy, so he’ll get the job done out there."

Wisconsin’s linebackers are hoping that, collectively, they’ll be able to get the job done, too, and create a more creative, quick unit despite losing several key pieces.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter