Several UW seniors enjoying banner years
MADISON – Paul Chryst understands what his boss learned during a successful run as Wisconsin’s football head coach: special seasons don’t happen without remarkable performances from your seniors.
The size of the senior class isn’t as important as the weight of its contributions.
“I remember when we first got a chance to work with him,” Chryst said, referring to former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez. “He’d talk about: your seniors need to play their best football if you want to have a good team.”
As UW (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) prepares to host Michigan (8-2, 5-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday, it is clear several seniors are contributing at levels anticipated though not guaranteed when camp opened in July.
Senior outside linebacker Leon Jacobs entered the season with 45 games played but only four starts. He had bounced around like a pinball – outside linebacker to inside linebacker to fullback – always looking for a position to call home.
Moved back to outside linebacker last April, Jacobs has started all 10 games on a unit that statistically is among the best in the nation.
“He’s fun to be around and he’s enjoying this season and he’s got a nice edge to him,” Chryst said. “We’ve said there are a lot of guys on that defense that are fun to watch, and he’s certainly one of them.”
Jacobs returned one fumble 21 yards for a touchdown and recovered another at the Iowa 14 to set up another touchdown in UW’s 38-14 victory over the Hawkeyes on Saturday. The game was his 55th at UW, a program record.
The victory was the 42nd for the senior class, a program record.
Jacobs also recorded a sack to push his season total to 3 1⁄2. He is second on the team in tackles for loss (8 1⁄2), fourth on the team in tackles (40) and leads the team in hurries (eight).
“Animal,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said when asked about Jacobs’ play against Iowa. “Beast. All of that in one.”
Senior defensive end Alec James entered the season with 12 starts. He could match that total with starts in the final two regular-season games, against Michigan and Minnesota.
James had a total of 48 tackles, including 25 solos, in his first three seasons. The Brookfield East High School graduate has 25 solo tackles this season and is fifth on the team in total tackles with 39. He is the leader of the defensive linemen and is tied for second on the team in sacks (5
Senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley redshirted in 2013, did not play in ’14 because of injuries, played mostly on special teams in ’15 and finally started two games last season in place of injured starter Vince Biegel.
Dooley entered his final season with 3 1⁄2 sacks, 6 1⁄2 tackles for loss and 43 total tackles. Through 10 games this season, Dooley leads the team in sacks (6 1⁄2) and tackles for loss (9 1⁄2) and has 33 total tackles, tied for the No. 7 mark on the team.
Senior Natrell Jamerson, moved to safety from cornerback in the spring, has made the change so seamlessly that questions about his ability to do so died out after only a few games.
Because Jamerson runs like a cornerback and hits like a linebacker, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard can use him just about anywhere on the field. He can cover wide receivers and tight ends and can be effective near the line of scrimmage in run support.
Jamerson has 33 tackles and has broken up eight passes. He has two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
Tindal entered his final season with three interceptions and 20 passes broken up. Along with redshirt junior Nick Nelson, UW has one of the better cornerback tandems in the Big Ten. Opposing quarterbacks have rarely challenged Tindal, who has six passes broken up and one interception.
The list isn’t exhaustive but it has to include senior safety Joe Ferguson.
Ferguson entered his final season with one start. He has started twice this season, replacing D’Cota Dixon (right leg) and has been around the ball in several games. Ferguson is tied for the team lead in interceptions (four) and has two fumble recoveries.
With Dixon unable to play against Iowa, Ferguson got the start. He contributed one tackle and broke up a pass as UW held the Hawkeyes to 66 yards on 50 plays.
Ferguson was asked after the game if he could compile a list of defenders who contributed to the stellar performance.
“I think it would be anybody that stepped on the field,” he said.
The same could be said for the seniors who have stepped onto the field for UW this season.
“They are playing their best football,” Chryst said. “They are putting it out there.”
UW linebacker Leon Jacobs returns a fumble for a touchdown during the third quarter against Iowa on Saturday in Madison.