Sophomore linebacker Joe Schobert was one of the most productive players on the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense during preseason camp.
But when senior outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong returned from a knee injury, it moved Schobert to what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda described as a “situational” role.
One of those situations is about to come up Saturday night and it’s a big one: Schobert, a walk-on from Waukesha West, is scheduled to make his first start when the No. 20 Badgers face Arizona State’s up-tempo offense in Tempe, Ariz.
“He’s made for a spot like this,” Aranda said.
Even though backup senior inside linebacker Conor O’Neill played well in UW’s 48-0 win over Tennessee Tech last week, finishing with nine tackles and 1½ tackles for loss, Aranda is revamping his linebacker corps to deal with the Sun Devils’ spread offense.
O’Neill filled in for junior Derek Landisch at the rover spot. With Landisch possibly missing a second straight game with an ankle injury, Aranda moved Armstrong to rover and will start Schobert at the field position on the outside.
Aranda said with Arizona State’s offense snapping the ball in about 15 to 20 seconds on average, it won’t give UW’s defense time to substitute. So Aranda has been forced to put together both base and nickel packages that can hold up for an entire series, if needed.
Playing Armstrong and Schobert together gives the defense two linebackers with coverage skills comparable to some defensive backs — but also with the size to deal with Arizona State’s running game.
Aranda got Armstrong some work inside at practice last week, just in case something happened to O’Neill.
“Pace is the deal,” Aranda said of the changes. “I feel really good about Conor. Conor was our player of the game this last game and played well. But Conor was really the only guy with any experience at that rover spot. I didn’t feel we could go into a game with just one guy.
“You want to have two veterans at that position, which is why (Armstrong worked inside).”
This is another example of Aranda’s ability to tweak the defense from week to week, based on the matchups, because of the depth and varied abilities of his players.
“(Schobert) will play man-to-man some. He’ll play some zone,” Aranda said. “All of those things, we feel real comfortable in him doing.”
Schobert spent all spring and almost the entire camp with the No. 1 defense. Armstrong missed the spring after shoulder surgery, then went down with a minor knee injury in the second practice. It was easy to locate Schobert during scrimmages: Simply find the football, since he was almost always around it.
“There’s no doubt — he has a knack for knocking out balls and getting picks, for making sacks, everything,” Aranda said at the end of camp. “He is a ball disrupter. That’s what we’re going to look for from him in true passing downs.”
To Schobert’s credit, he accepted his role without complaint after Armstrong returned as the starter for the opener. Schobert still played 29 snaps in the first game and was part of the “peso” package on third downs, which includes two defensive linemen and two linebackers at the line of scrimmage, two coverage linebackers and five defensive backs.
“Ethan’s been here for so long, he’s put so much hard work in. His work ethic is second to none,” Schobert said. “It’s always great to see a guy like that (succeed), especially his senior year. He obviously knows what he’s doing out there.
“For me, it’s great to get reps in the game, however I get them.”
Schobert, who started out at safety last season before moving to outside linebacker in the new defense, credits Armstrong with making him feel comfortable in coverage at his new position.
“I just try and watch his demeanor on every play,” Schobert said. “For me, the best part is seeing how he reads plays as they happen. He doesn’t rush through them. He reads them, gets to the right read and makes the play.
“I try to watch what he does, especially when you’re out in coverage because he’s so smart with coverages. He knows what offenses are going to try and do to beat coverages. I try to pick his brain with that stuff a lot.”
Against spread teams, Aranda said there basically is no difference between Armstrong and Schobert at the field position. Against downhill running teams, Armstrong probably carries a slight edge.
Schobert’s skills fit the defense because he’s effective in coverage and as a pass rusher. He showed his knack for making plays during camp, including a memorable interception when he deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage, then reached back to make a tough catch.
“I’d like to be able to get to where we have as many guys as possible playing, with their specific skill sets,” Aranda said.
“The more people that play, that bring something to the game, I think the better your morale is going to be and the better your health will be at the end (of the season).”