July 24, 2009

Fall Outlook: Linebackers

With Wisconsin's fall camp only a matter of weeks away, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look a the individual position groups. Today, our continuing series focuses on the linebackers.

Following spring camp, it seems no position separated itself from the potential backups than the projected starting linebackers did. Following the departure of Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy, the unit will feature a new identity albeit with familiar names.

Departing Starters: DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas
Returning Starters: Jaevery McFadden, Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean
Top Reserves: Leonard Hubbard, Kevin Rouse, Tony Megna and Mike Taylor.

Post-Spring Depth Chart:

Sr. Jaevery McFadden (6-3, 226)
So. Kevin Rouse (6-0, 229)
So. Tony Megna (6-0, 202)

Jr. Culmer St. Jean (6-1, 235)
Fr. Leonard Hubbard (6-1, 233)

Jr. Blake Sorensen (6-1, 230)
Fr. Mike Taylor (6-2, 215)

Overview: Instead of anchoring the middle position, the departure of Casillas and Levy allowed McFadden to roam at the will position, one that he is most comfortable with.

Then, with McFadden shifting to the outside, St. Jean, who played earlier in his career, will be back in the middle and Sorensen will man the strong side. On the surface, it seems there has been plenty of realignment within the position, but dig a bit deeper and they are shifts that accommodate each individual's skill set at a higher level.

McFadden can best utilize his strength on the outside, St. Jean is a sure tackler and understands the defensive schemes rather well and Sorensen, much like McFadden has solid speed with newly added bulk that will allow him to withstand the rigors of a full season.

The Pro: McFadden. Not only is he the longest tenured player in the entire linebacking core, he is one of the most talented. He has great speed that enables him to cover sideline to sideline and stick with tight ends or slot receivers. And, after playing much of last year with a club on his hand following an early season break, McFadden is fully healthy heading into fall camp.

"Jaevery is just better on the edge I believe," UW linebacker coach Randall McCray said during spring camp. "We needed him to play last year, so he played inside. Now he's on the edge of things and you see his speed when he's running around and things like that.

"I think he's doing a pretty good job."

A lot of the success the defense has as a whole this season will play largely into how McFadden performs. He has shown flashes of potential greatness and this may finally be the season he breaks out and becomes a terror for opposing teams. Not having the club will also play into his success as he again has full movement in his hands and fingers.

"You might as well cut your hand off," McFadden said during spring camp. "You're playing with a cut off hand on your right hand. You just got one hand. You got no fingers, no wrist, you just got a nub on your right hand.

"So, you basically are just playing with a nub on your right arm and just going out there and try to make plays. Just diving and putting your body on the line to make plays, you can't wrap up or nothing."

By not having to wear the club during spring camp, McFadden regained confidence in his full abilities and that should continue into fall camp in August.

The Rising Star: Taylor. Unfortunately for Taylor, he has been marred with injuries throughout his short career at UW. But in the few instances he has been healthy enough to participate in practice, he has showcased great explosiveness and desire to make plays. When on the blitz, it was almost guaranteed that he would find his way through the line and get in the face of the passer. Hopefully, Taylor, who missed a decent chunk of spring with a hamstring, will be able to stay healthy throughout fall camp.

The Rookie: Conor O'Neill. Coming from a high school powerhouse such as St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, a team that contends for national championships seemingly on an annual basis, O'Neill was one of the prized recruits that will make his initial appearance as a Badger this fall. He has great intangibles and could potentially vie for a spot in certain packages with his speed and knowledge of the game. He will be a fun one to watch when fall camp ensues.

Expectations: Though several of the backups made some great plays during spring camp (i.e. Tony Megna's pick six in the spring game), it was fairly evident the starters separated themselves from the backups.

"With me, Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen, we definitely are trying to get a little identity for us," McFadden said. "We're going to wait for that during the season, but as far as right now, we are trying to mentally and physically tough, get that toughness that Wisconsin always used to have."

But with injury playing such a major role in the game of football, it can only be expected for players to get nicked and bruised here and there. As is evidenced in spring ball when Erik Prather went down with a severe knee injury that will cost him the entire 2009 season. Thus, it is essential that some of the younger players, who at the time are not ready to start, continue to improve.

"The guys we got to bring along are Kevin Rouse, Leonard Hubbard and Matthew Groff and Tony Megna," McCray said. "Tony is making a lot of good plays for us, old Oak Creek (Wis.) guy. It's good to see the younger guys make plays, now they just got to be consistent."

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