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Seniors say there’s lots of promise in Wisconsin’s next men up

MADISON, Wis. — While Pinstripe Bowl preparation will be the last chance Wisconsin’s seniors have leave something on the practice field, some of the younger Badgers look at as a first step to the rest of their careers.

“Right now, this is the last impression our coaches are gonna get of us on the football field before we have spring ball,” said Noah Burks, Badgers’ sophomore outside linebacker. “So you want to leave a good impression.”

Ask Wisconsin’s senior class, and they’ll tell you that Burks and other first- and second-year talents are doing just that. The Badgers (7-5, 5-4) are certainly focused on their next target, Miami, in the weeks leading up to the repeat bowl clash on Dec. 27 in New York City, but they’re also using these last few weeks of the season to assess where they’re at and what they have heading into the offseason.

Giving the next generation of Badgers quality time on the practice field is a big part of that.

“They’re getting to kind of get thrown in the fire, seeing who can sink or swim,” senior fullback Alec Ingold said. “And I think that’s really beneficial for the young guys, just getting these reps because you can’t really substitute these game reps.

“Watching film on the younger guys, they get to watch film on themselves now instead of sitting back and watching some of the starters and backups play.”

Ingold has been particularly impressed with Nakia Watson and John Chenal.

Watson, a freshman from Austin, Texas, was buried in the depth chart behind Jonathan Taylor, Taiwan Deal, Chris James, and Garrett Groshek, and didn’t see any in-game action this season. But Ingold said watching him, you’d have no idea.

“Nakia is really running hard,” Ingold said. “He’s running purposefully. You can see that there’s a switch that flipped. He’s no longer the service guy, he’s running our offense now, so he’s running strong, he’s running people over, and it’s pretty fun to watch.”

Ingold said Chenal, on the other hand, is still getting his game-speed footing. The freshman from Grantsburg, Wisconsin played in six games this season, but has really come alive these last few weeks.

“He’s still learning, but is able to stay in control,” Ingold said. “He’s a really, really quick learner, so he’s picking a lot of stuff up. He’s never making the same mistake twice.”

On the other side of the ball, senior T.J. Edwards would rather not leave the linebacker room at all, but if he must, at least he knows it’ll be taken good care of.

He trusts returning inside linebacker Chris Orr to lead the way for Burks, Jack Sanborn, “Mikey” Maskalunas, Griffin Grady, and other up-and-comers next season.

“Getting that chance to be with the 1’s and be with the 2’s, and obviously we still have Chris Orr there who’s gonna come back and have a breakout year, I’m very confident for that room for sure,” Edwards said.

Playing in 12 and 10 games this season, respectively, Burks and Sanborn got the most turf under their shoes this season out of that young bunch. Burks finished the regular season with four tackles, while Sanborn notched seven.

But both backers craved some extra time and attention spent on the details necessary to see those totals multiply next year.

“[Outside linebackers] coach April especially has been stressing the physicality aspect to the outside backers,” Burks said. “He’s been challenging us to all be a lot more physical. He’s really given each person a lot of technique, things that they need to work on individually that he sees they can expand their game on.”

With just the bowl game left this season, there isn’t time for Burks and other young Badgers to know, with certainty, where on the depth chart they may or may not land or how many carries or tackles they’ll get next season.

But at the very least, Edwards hopes they know their time is coming.

“In practice, you can see them have a better understanding of what’s going on and trying to do more than what they’ve done in the past,” he said. “I think it’s guys who truly realize it’s getting close to their time to be expected to show up and be expected to make some big plays.”

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