MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel acknowledged Saturday that it was weird starting spring practice without Joe Schobert, his "partner in crime" on the football field for his entire college career. Last season, they formed a pass-rushing duo that rivaled any in college football, tallying 17.5 combined sacks, which tied for the most of any linebacker pair in the FBS.
But Schobert, the Big Ten's linebacker of the year and an ESPN.com first-team All-American, exhausted his eligibility. He is waiting to hear his name called this spring in the NFL draft. And although the Badgers' No. 1-ranked scoring defense was set to return six starters in the front seven for 2016, the question lingered: Who in the world was going to replace that guy?
Based on the first day of spring practice at Camp Randall Stadium, the answer appears to be redshirt junior T.J. Watt. If that last name sounds familiar to Big Ten football fans, it's because his oldest brother, J.J., is a former Badgers defensive end who has been named NFL defensive player of the year three times. Middle brother Derek Watt, a fullback, just completed his football career at Wisconsin and is preparing for the NFL draft.
"Obviously he's got the Watt name on the back of his jersey," said Biegel, who will be a fifth-year senior this fall. "But he's his own person and he brings that attitude, that Wisconsin mentality every single day. It's going to pay off come this football season."
Watt spent Saturday with the first-team defense at outside linebacker opposite Biegel, an all-Big Ten honorable mention selection a year ago. Biegel said he would play the field linebacker position, where Schobert played a year ago, while Watt would play Biegel's old position in the boundary.
"I knew T.J. was going to be a big-time starter for us coming into this year," Biegel said. "I'm really excited about what me and T.J. can both bring off the edge from a physicality standpoint, from a pass-rush standpoint. I think me and him are going to have a lot of fun in the backfield with quarterbacks."
The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Watt began his career at tight end but was moved to linebacker last year. He played in all 13 games and recorded eight tackles with three pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. Despite limited action, his QB-hurries mark ranked third on the team.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Watt showed growth the final three games of last season. But he also was involved primarily in passing situations. The key moving forward, Chryst noted, is to develop consistency in the run game and the focus necessary to play far more snaps on game day.
"Your linebackers are like tight ends," Chryst said. "They're involved with everything. So it's kind of making sure how you're fitting into your coverage scheme. It's making sure you've got that one pass rush, now what's the counter off of it? There's so many little things. That's where you try to reduce it down to focus on the small things."
Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards remained Wisconsin's top inside linebackers during practice. Edwards led the Badgers with 84 tackles last season, and Orr wowed as a true freshman with 46 tackles while missing three games due to injury. The third inside linebacker in the rotation was Jack Cichy, who burst onto the national scene during Wisconsin's bowl victory against USC when he recorded three consecutive sacks on one drive.
"I think Jack is a better inside linebacker than an outside linebacker," Biegel said. "T.J. can bring a lot of physicality to the outside linebacker as well. Whether Jack plays inside, outside, I think we're going to be good on defense. ... We have a very deep linebacking corps this year, and I'm excited about what we're going to have collectively as a group making plays."
Watt will have a long way to go to replicate Schobert's statistics. Schobert finished last season with 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles -- all numbers that led the team -- to go with 79 total tackles. A year ago, Watt lined up at multiple positions, including nose guard on occasion. Now, he has found a home at a position that should allow him to make a substantial impact on defense.
"His days at nose guard are over," Biegel said. "But don't be surprised if you see T.J. pass rush from different spots. He's a great asset for our defense. Don't be surprised if he really blossoms up as a great player for us on defense this year."