Wisconsin defense retools at OLB this spring, but set inside

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Wisconsin defense retools at OLB this spring, but set inside
FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2017 file photo, Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel celebrates after recovering a fumble during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Indianapolis. Wisconsin is retooling at outside linebacker this spring, when coach Paul Chryst will start evaluating potential replacements for the productive Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs. Andrew Van Ginkel seems set to fill one starting spot. The Badgers though are set at inside linebacker, where All-American T.J. Edwards is back to lead a strong group. (AP Photo/AJ Mast, file)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It’s barely a few weeks into spring and T.J. Edwards is already thinking about the first weekend of December.

Back for his senior season after testing his NFL draft stock, the All-American linebacker would like to finish an already impressive career at Wisconsin with an elusive accomplishment.

A national title would be nice. Winning the Big Ten Championship game would give the Badgers a better shot at claiming that crown.

“The part that gets me every time is we can’t win the (darn) Big Ten championship, so that hurts,” Edwards said. “Just going back to Indianapolis is something that sticks in my brain.”

The Badgers have lost the last two conference championship games. To get to Indianapolis again, they have to win the Big Ten West. To do that, they need to restock the defense.

Inside linebacker is set with standouts Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr. The outside needs work this spring, though.

They need two new starters at the position for a second straight year. Andrew Van Ginkel seems locked into one spot after serving as the top backup last year to Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs. A defensive back as a senior in high school, Van Ginkel played defensive end in his first year of college at FCS school South Dakota before attending Iowa Western Community College the following year.

Now he’s at linebacker with the Badgers. Rushing the passer should not be a problem after Van Ginkel recorded 6 1/2 sacks.

This spring, Van Ginkel has to get used to being the guy that the offense must watch all game long. He’s also working on pass coverage again.

“I’ve come a long ways,” Van Ginkel said.

He’s off to a good start after getting interceptions in the Orange Bowl against Miami, and in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State.

“I expect to make plays like that every Saturday. Hopefully I can just keep that in mind that I’m capable of doing it,” Van Ginkel said. “At the same time, I can’t just dwell on it — that’s last year.”

Zack Baun was off to a nice start this spring at the other outside linebacker spot after missing the 2017 season with a left foot injury. He couldn’t stop smiling after coming off the field after a practice last week.

“Just don’t doubt us. Look at our outside linebacker room in the past. We’re always reloading. We’re always resetting, We’re going to be ready come fall,” Baun said.

Since then, Baun injured the same foot, knocking the junior out of practice indefinitely. He was due to see a specialist to determine the extent of the latest injury. Tyler Johnson, who had eight tackles and a sack in 14 games last year as a sophomore, is the other experienced returnee.

They can at least draw confidence from the Badgers’ recent history at outside linebacker, where Jacobs and Dooley produced in their first and only seasons as starters. Before that, T.J. Watt parlayed a successful junior season in his only year as starter to get taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Another variable this year at Wisconsin is a new position coach. Bobby April took over after Tim Tibesar left to become Oregon State’s defensive coordinator.

On the field, Baun and Johnson can look inside for motivation from Edwards, a finalist for the Butkus Award that goes to the nation’s best linebacker. For Edwards, it’s about keeping his teammates’ energy level up from spring practice through those meaningful final few weeks in November and December.

“The fighting and scrapping that we do is something we have to keep here,” he said. “That’s the standard we have for this defense. We’re just trying to uphold those things.”

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