Vince Biegel photo

Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel pressures USC quarterback Cody Kessler in the second quarter of UW’s 23-21 victory in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30, 2015 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

If anyone needed a reminder about the unpredictability of college football, they got it this week when University of Wisconsin senior guard Dan Voltz pulled the plug on his football career due to the cumulative effect of injuries over five years.

Even a relatively normal career path — like, say, the one taken by fifth-year UW outside linebacker Vince Biegel — has its share of twists and turns.

“It definitely was not the journey I thought it would be, with three different head coaches and three different coordinators and three different strength coaches,” Biegel said this week. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Indeed, despite all the change that has swirled around Biegel during his time at UW, his career arrow has pointed upward since the day he arrived as a heavily recruited athlete from a legendary football family in Wisconsin Rapids. Five years later, he is UW’s most decorated returning player on either side of the ball and the leader of an experienced defensive front seven that will be tasked with controlling the line of scrimmage against a string of ranked opponents on UW’s most rigorous schedule in years.

If anyone is up to the task, it’s Biegel, who bypassed the NFL draft to play one more season at UW after being a consensus (coaches and media) third-team All-Big Ten Conference selection as a junior. His progress from his injury-aborted freshman season to a player whose name is currently on multiple national award watch lists has been steady. His role increased every year and his production followed suit.

When the grind of fall camp ended Tuesday and the Badgers started looking ahead to their opener against LSU at Lambeau Field, Biegel was just a day or two of rest away from being at the peak of his powers. He’s bigger, faster, stronger and more focused than ever.

“Once we start game prep for LSU, it’s all business, man,” Biegel said. “I’m extremely excited. It’s going to be a big year for me. My mind, body and soul are where they need to be.”

That’s good news for UW. Biegel is regarded as one of the top edge pass rushers in the country, but he’ll be asked to do more than that this season.

UW was ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense under popular former coordinator Dave Aranda, who left for a bigger paycheck at LSU. Biegel played a large role in the defense’s success with 66 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and eight quarterback sacks. The TFLs and sacks were second on the team to Joe Schobert, Biegel’s tag-team partner at outside linebacker.

With Schobert gone to the NFL, junior T.J. Watt will line up opposite Biegel, but the coaches expect the big plays to continue since both Biegel and Watt have exhibited playmaking ability in the past. Biegel, who had 16.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks as a sophomore, seems primed for a big season, partly because he’s matured physically and mentally and partly because new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has put in some wrinkles that Biegel believes will help him get to the quarterback.

“That’s what I’m most excited about,” he said. “Coach ’Cox is a man who puts his playmakers in position to make plays. I think Dave Aranda was a guy who played technically sound across the board. I’m excited to be in a few new and different blitz packages with coach ’Cox. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Biegel deserves that. In addition to being a third-team all-conference selection last season, he was a second-team pick by the media as a sophomore. He also is a three-time selection on the Big Ten all-academic team. And, like so many others at UW, he takes tremendous pride in playing for his home-state team.

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Some thought Biegel was good enough to start as a freshman, but he played as a reserve in two games before injuring his foot and taking a medical redshirt year.

“I think for a freshman coming in, everybody wants to play,” he said. “When you were in high school, you were the leader, you were the dominant player, but you definitely get put in your place your freshman year, no matter where you come from. Over the years I’ve been fortunate and very blessed to have great coaches and great teammates in my life to help me elevate my game and put me in the best situations.”

Now it’s Biegel’s turn to help UW maintain its status as one of the nation’s elite defenses. He’s always excited about football, but he’s especially excited about his senior year after a career path that took him from designated pass rusher to starter to team leader to UW’s best player.

“I have high expectations for our defense,” Biegel said. “If we want to get to the places where we want to get and want to be, our defense is going to have to be stout this year.”

Either way, this is Biegel’s last stand.

“It goes fast,” he said. “I’m a redshirt senior and a lot of my close friends and friends on campus have already been doing real-life people things. But I’m going to finish out my senior season. I’m a firm believer that the best is yet to come.”

If Biegel’s career path is any indication, the best is indeed yet to come.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.