Wisconsin football team will use a team approach in effort to replace linebacker Nick Herbig. Who will step up?

MADISON – Wisconsin returns its top four inside linebackers from last season.
What about the outside linebackers?
Five of the Badgers’ top six players at that position return in 2023.
The lone departure, obviously, was significant.
Nick Herbig led UW in sacks (11), tackles for loss (15½) and forced fumbles (two) and finished sixth in total tackles (47).
“Nick was an amazing leader for us,” said redshirt sophomore T.J. Bollers, who is set to vie for more playing time at outside linebacker this season. “He made a lot of great plays and did a lot of great things for this team. I think with him leaving and going into the (NFL), that this is going a year of opportunity for all of us.
“Because he did take a lot of the spotlight and he deserved it. Now being that he is gone we have to establish new leadership. We’ve got to establish guys that are going to be out there making plays and keep making the legacy that Wisconsin outside linebackers have set.
“We’re excited to get out there and keep working. We’re just going to grind our asses off.”
First-year outside linebackers coach Matt Mitchell had eight players to evaluate in the spring. The ninth outside linebacker on the roster, Aaron Witt, remained sidelined because of apparent complications from a foot injury suffered in the spring of 2021.
Darryl Peterson, C.J. Goetz, Bollers, Michigan State transfer Jeff Pietrowski and Kaden Johnson were the top five options at the close of spring ball.
Peterson and Goetz recorded two sacks apiece last season. Pietrowski was limited to three games last season because of a leg injury.
Pietrowski, 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, showed in the spring the ability to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback. He had 5½ sacks as a sophomore in 2021 at Michigan State. Can he provide the same big-play ability for UW in 2023? Can anyone else improve their numbers to help UW fill the void caused by the departure of Herbig?
Here are other players and changes to watch as UW prepares for the season.
Reserve inside linebacker Jake Chaney pushes for an expanded role
Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner, UW’s starting inside linebackers and top two tacklers in 2022, are back this season.
That duo worked on UW’s No. 1 defense all spring.
Jake Chaney and Tatum Grass, who formed the No. 2 duo last season, are also back.
Based on how defensive coordinator Mike Tressel used Chaney in the spring, the junior from Florida could fill a variety of roles.
Chaney played in 12 of 13 games last season and finished with 38 tackles, the No. 7 mark on the team. In addition to working on the No. 2 defense in the spring, he worked with the top unit in a scheme that featured three inside linebackers and just one outside linebacker.
“He is a good player,” said Tressel, who also oversees the inside linebackers. “He has really impressed me. He has the ability to be really heavy handed where he shocks offensive linemen and you see them stumble back 2 yards. And the next play slip ‘em and make a play in the backfield.
“Having the ability to do both those things and having a feel for when to use each of those tools is really impressive.”
Can the Wisconsin defense confuse opponents with myriad fronts?
Former UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was adept at mixing the looks the linebackers gave opposing linemen and quarterbacks, either in a 3-4 or 2-4 front.
Tressel hopes to do the same.
On some downs the inside linebackers will be several yards off the line of scrimmage, in a traditional look.
“There is a benefit to that,” he said. “You’re in great position to not cross over your feet and play square and strong.”
“But then there’s other times, other situations where we want to be bluffing around. We want to be in more of a blitz stance. We want to walk up to the line of scrimmage to threaten the run-through to the offensive line, to potentially take double-teams off defensive linemen. There’s some benefits to bluffing around and blitzing.
“We want you to have you prepare for both of those looks.”
Maema Njongmeta talks about adjusting to a new position coach – again
Njongmeta, a redshirt senior from Illinois, was tutored by Bob Bostad for three years (2019-2021). Last season, he worked under Mark D’Onofrio.
He noted that Bostad and Tressel differ in one particular area.
“Bostad … he would say this your gap,” Njongmeta said. “Make sure this is your gap. Coach Tress is less like that. That has been like two demons fighting inside of me.
“But it’s good because it teaches you different ways to play the game. In a way football is art. There’s not one size fits all. You have to know the situation and having those different voices is helpful because it adds to what I can do. It adds to my toolbox.”
Versatility could be critical for Wisconsin’s outside linebackers to flourish
Mitchell noted Tressel has myriad packages and alignments that should allow for all the linebackers, inside and outside, to make plays.
“We’re going to run all of the packages so there is a lot of pressure and opportunities for the outside linebackers,” he said. “I told the guys they’ve got to be five-tool players.
“They’ve got to set edges in the run game. They’ve got to be able to pressure off the edge, whether that is called pressure or if they have to transition. They’ve got to be able to drop back into zone coverage. They have to have man coverage on tight ends and tailbacks. So, we need a versatile athlete.”

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