LINCOLN, Neb. — On one particular warm day back in August, during the grind of the University of Wisconsin football team’s fall camp, outside linebacker Leon Jacobs lined up opposite right tackle David Edwards during one-on-one pass-rushing drills.
Jacobs took two quick steps, plowed into the chest of the 6-foot-7, 315-pound lineman, lifted him completely off the ground and slammed him to the turf.
It didn’t result in any over-the-top hooting or hollering from teammates — no boisterous comments one might expect from a play as startling as the one that had just taken place. Jacobs knocked over the quarterback tackling dummy, Edwards dusted himself off and the drill proceeded without interruption.
This had more or less become a normal day on the practice field for the senior who bench pressed 435 pounds over the summer.
“When he would time it up well and his power was coming through his legs to his hands, he’ll lift you right out of your shoes,” Edwards said. “I had a couple of those moments in camp and spring ball.”
Needless to say, the questions surrounding UW’s ability to rush the passer from the outside linebacker position this year were answered long before Jacobs and senior Garret Dooley dominated Northwestern last week.
Dooley filled the stat sheet against the Wildcats, recording 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Jacobs terrorized Northwestern’s tackles, funneled quarterback Clayton Thorson to Dooley and other teammates on multiple occasions and pressured Thorson into throwing a game-sealing pick-six in the fourth quarter.
Jacobs called last week UW’s first “pass-rush game” where the outside linebackers were set free to do what they do best. Now they enter a matchup tonight with a Nebraska team that’s struggled to protect quarterback Tanner Lee during the season’s first five weeks.
Maintaining the standard NFL draft picks T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel set last year no longer feels like a far-reaching goal for the Badgers’ outside linebackers.
“I knew (Dooley and Jacobs were that good) before I played tackle and then I for sure knew it after I started playing tackle,” said junior Michael Deiter, who switched from center to left tackle prior to fall camp. “It’s like, ‘I’ve got to be at my best, or else I’m going to get embarrassed.’ It’s that kind of mentality against those guys. If you don’t have perfect technique and aren’t smart with them, they’ll beat you. They’ll expose you.”
Dooley began proving himself last year. He started in place of an injured Biegel for two of UW’s biggest games of the season, against Michigan and Ohio State, and became a key member of the rotation at outside linebacker over the second half of the year.
While those spot starts encouraged the coaching staff that Dooley could take over a starting role the following year, the fifth-year player said he’s currently playing at a different level than he ever has.
“Last year, especially when I first started getting into the rotation, there might have been a little bit of timidness just because I hadn’t been in that situation before,” Dooley said. “When it comes to just the nerves, I think I’m a lot more calm than I was last year.”
Jacobs took a much longer-winding path to his current role. He came to Madison as an outside linebacker but has switched positions four times. He moved to inside linebacker, experimented at fullback, went back to inside linebacker and finally returned to outside linebacker midway through spring practice.
The timing of his final switch was prefect. He acclimated himself to the many responsibilities UW expects from its outside linebackers while earning first-team reps almost instantly. Sophomore Zack Baun sustained a season-ending injury, making Jacobs’ position change all the more important.
UW outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said Jacobs possesses all the tools he looks for in an outside linebacker, and the senior’s reactions are now becoming instinctual, allowing him to play faster.
Jacobs looks most comfortable and natural at his current position, where his strength, speed and athleticism can be used to the fullest, particularly when rushing off the edge.
“God gave me the skill set (for rushing the passer), so why not use it?” Jacobs said.
The importance of adding junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel at the position shouldn’t be overlooked.
He enrolled at UW in January from Iowa Western, and after Baun’s injury developed into the key third piece of a three-man rotation. Jacobs and Dooley can’t play every snap, and Van Ginkel’s quick adaptation to the defense provided depth that UW otherwise may not have.
“His football intelligence and his ability to pick up our scheme with all the different things that we do with our outside linebackers, I’ve been really impressed,” Tibesar said of Van Ginkel. “He’s had no trouble picking up the scheme, and he had done almost no pass coverage at all in his previous years in college.
“To think that he would have been able to show up in August and be able to play at the level he’s at would be unrealistic. Fortunately, we were able to get him in in January, and he’s taken that opportunity and ran with it.”
The pressure still fell on Jacobs and Dooley to fill the void left by two All-Big Ten Conference players with pro-level talent, and so far they’ve delivered.
Watt blew away high expectations when replacing former All-American Joe Schobert last year, breaking out into an instant star before ultimately becoming a first-round pick.
Those outside UW’s program were much less certain about Dooley and Jacobs. And while they still haven’t garnered the same star-level recognition as their predecessors, the two are so far overcoming the mountainous task of avoiding a drop-off at their position.
“It doesn’t matter who we graduate. We have to get the next guy up and ready to go,” Tibesar said. “We have tried to preach that the standard’s not going to change, and the expectation for the guys in that room are not going to change. So far that’s worked out. The guys believe it.”