Two months ago, Tyler Johnson was a walk-on sophomore who couldn’t crack the regular rotation at outside linebacker.
He’s now created three crucial turnovers in the past two weeks for the still-undefeated University of Wisconsin, and his snap count continues to increase because of it.
While seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs quickly erased concerns this season over their ability to adequately replace NFL talents T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, Johnson and junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel are beginning to show the future of the position may not be all that bad, either.
When officials were reviewing whether Johnson ripped the ball away from Indiana running back Morgan Ellison before Ellison’s butt hit the ground during the second quarter on Saturday, most probably weren’t focused on the play in its entirety.
Johnson made a fantastic effort regardless of what the replay revealed.
Johnson sets the edge, forces Ellison inside towards his help and still frees himself from the left tackle’s grasp just in time to make a tackle near the line of scrimmage. The fact that he also somehow managed to take the ball away was a bonus.
While Van Ginkel has shown the capability to make plays like this in recent weeks (and will continue to do so as he adds more strength), he’s giving offensive tackles fits with his quickness over than anything else.
Check out these clips from UW’s game at Illinois a couple weeks ago.
Van GInkel doesn’t make the tackle in that second video, but the move he puts on the left tackle is quite impressive.
Both Johnson and Van Ginkel have also showed encouraging signs when rushing the passer. Both are quick to expose a gap when stunting inside, as shown by Van Ginkel’s sack at Illinois and Johnson’s rush Saturday that led to Joe Ferguson’s first fourth-quarter interception.
Johnson has employed a nice spin move on occasion and appears to possess some underrated strength he can use to force his way around tackles and collapse the pocket (see his sack-fumble against Illinois).
Here are back-to-back plays late in Saturday’s game at Indiana in which Van Ginkel and Johnson both do well. In the first, UW goes with a straight four-man rush and both win one-on-one battles with the Hoosiers’ tackles. In the second, Van Ginkel wins his matchup again, while Johnson stunts inside and easily bullies his way past a running back.
Van Ginkel can still be swallowed up by some tackles and has a tendency to rush too far upfield at times, while the sample size with Johnson remains small despite the key plays he’s made the last two weeks.
Even so, the two are earning bigger roles. Van Ginkel played just six less snaps than Jacobs two weeks ago at Illinois, per Pro Football Focus, and only 10 less than Dooley on Saturday at Indiana. The Badgers have handed Johnson a season-high snap count each of the past three weeks.
The upcoming offseason, after the departure of Jacobs and Dooley, will once again bring concerns about UW’s pass rush and the outside linebacker position. With the return of Zack Baun and another year of experience for Johnson and Van Ginkel, though, the Badgers have a chance to successfully reload at that spot once again.
— The 18-yard touchdown to Alec Ingold came from a great play call after UW noticed Indiana’s willingness leave no safety deep when the Badgers were in heavy personnel.
With two backs and two tight ends in the game and the Hoosiers creeping all 11 defenders to within five yards of the line of scrimmage, UW simply faked a power run — pulling left guard Jon Dietzen across the formation and using play-action to draw the defense in — that allowed Ingold to easily slip behind everyone for a score.
Ingold was always going to be open there.
The Badgers did try this again when facing third-and-2 in the third quarter, but Ingold got caught in traffic and Indiana recognized it more quickly, leading Alex Hornibrook to work back to the other side of the field and complete and impressive throw-and-catch to Kendric Pryor for a first down.
It’s a neat play that can really open up when used in moderation against a team that’s selling out against the run. Saturday isn’t the first time Paul Chryst has used this, either. The Badgers hit Ingold for a 19-yard score at Purdue last season in a very similar situation.
Here are some other notes from re-watching Saturday’s game:
— We talked a lot about the jet sweep in this space last week, and I mentioned on The Red Zone podcast that I didn’t think it mattered which wide receiver ran the play when teams were scheming to take it away.
For some reason, though, I didn’t think about Jonathan Taylor running the play, even after watching film from last year where Corey Clement did the same. Why not give the ball to one of your fastest skill guys who can break tackles and has better vision than anyone else on your team? Taylor scored from 32 yards out on a jet sweep in the third quarter and ran for 10 yards on another.
Neither opened up all that much for him. He’s just really good. Expect to see more of that in the next few games.
— Jim Leonhard didn’t do anything too crazy Saturday, but here’s our Interesting Pressure of the Week:
By dropping Dooley on the far side, UW overloads the other. Indiana’s right tackle is left with nothing to do expect triple-team Alec James, and T.J. Edwards comes free off the opposite edge.
— Speaking of Edwards, did I hear Greg McElroy say he was the Badgers’ worst guy in coverage? I’m not sure if McElroy got Edwards confused with someone else, but I think Edwards may be the best coverage linebacker on this team.