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Wisconsin Defensive Player to Watch: Linebacker Nick Herbig

This Badger backer is a skilled pass rusher and often plays with reckless abandon — in a good way. He will test Ohio State’s offensive line in The Shoe.

Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers finished 2021 with one of college football’s truly elite defenses. They surrendered the fewest total yards per game — and it wasn’t really close (a margin of 30 yards). They held opponents to an average of 65 yards rushing, on a measly 2.1 yards per carry! And just for good measure, the Big Ten bullies allowed a ridiculous 16.2 points per contest. These are a few of the Badgers’ most impressive stats from the previous season, but they were dominant by any and all metrics.

While Ohio State fans likely do not want to hear that the momentum has carried over from one season to the next, it certainly has thus far. Wisconsin’s defense once again looks good to begin the 2022 season, despite the loss of eight starters. The unit is giving up just 8.0 PPG, and they are tied for 10th in the country with eight forced turnovers.

So after struggling out of the blocks against Notre Dame, and not being tested by Arkansas State or Toledo, this might seem like a tough matchup for the Buckeyes. And maybe it is. It certainly has been in the past, when UW was a perennial Big Ten contender. But the Badgers’ defense has not faced an offense like the one they will encounter in The Shoe on Saturday.

To be frank: Wisconsin has not faced a noteworthy team. Their opponents have been completely and utterly without note. In Weeks 1-3, they faced Illinois State, Washington State, and New Mexico State, respectively — not exactly a murderer’s row of “State” schools. The WSU Cougars obviously pulled off the upset, and Cam Ward is an intriguing quarterback for the Cougs, but they are still not expected to be among the Pac-12’s best. Illinois State and New Mexico State could barely snap the ball, let alone move it against the Badgers. So, a showdown with the Buckeyes is a big step up in competition.

Adding to the intrigue of this Big Ten showdown is the fact that Wisconsin did lose those eight starters from its elite 2021 unit. Any lack of experience has thus far been cancelled out by playing against inferior opponents, but Saturday’s game should be a real strength-on-strength matchup. Jim Leonhard is in his sixth season as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator, and with the loss of so many experienced players, he might ultimately be the X-factor against the Buckeyes. However, this is not a weekly installment of Coach to Watch.

As far as UW players go, all three returning defensive starters are big-time ballers. Keeanu Benton is a space-eater up front, as he anchors the interior of the line. On the back end, safety John Torchio is a sure tackler and a playmaker. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2021, and began his 2022 season with a 100-yard pick-six against Illinois State. But the player I will be watching intently is outside linebacker Nick Herbig. The Hawaii native joined Wisconsin’s program in 2020, and has been a major contributor since day one. His disruptive nature and ability to rush the quarterback make Herbig this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.

Admittedly not a Wisconsin football historian, I do not recall many Hawaiian players suiting up for the Badgers, so Herbig’s story is pretty interesting, in my opinion. He was the No. 9 OLB in his recruiting class, and held an impressive list of offers. He chose UW over a group of schools which included Oklahoma, Tennessee, and UCLA — because it was Leonhard and Co. who saw his potential early. They offered Herbig a scholarship six months before the Sooners or Volunteers extended an official offer, and ended up bringing the talented OLB to the Midwest as part of their 2020 class.

Despite many challenges presented by the pandemic – and the whole being a true freshman “thing” – Herbig carved out a role with the Badgers right away. In fact, he became an immediate starter, and has not relinquished his spot since. In seven games started during the shortened season, Herbig totaled 26 tackles and tied for the team lead with six tackles for loss. Impressively, 23 of his tackles were of the solo variety, displaying sound fundamentals and an ability to bring down ball carriers in space. He then took a tremendous step forward in 2021, taking on a leadership role which appears to come naturally.

Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

As part of an outstanding LB position group, Herbig became a feared pass rusher last season. Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn finished miles ahead of their teammate when it came to total tackles, but it was Herbig who led the team in sacks (9). He added 14.5 TFL and two forced fumbles, announcing his presence to the CFB world. PFF gave the second-year dynamo a 91.4 pass rush grade, which was the highest ever given to a Wisconsin edge rusher... and yes, that includes the Watt brothers. Herbig’s profile has only continued to grow, and come Saturday, he will have an opportunity to get after Buckeyes.

Named a preseason All-American by Phil Steele, the Badger backer has already racked up four sacks in 2022. He does not provide much in pass coverage, and has a tendency to over-pursue, but I only bring that up in a nit-picky fashion. For what he is asked to do, Herbig executes his assignments consistently. And if pass coverage is the weakest part of his game, I doubt that is really comes into play against the Buckeyes.

He will not be asked to cover JSN, but he could stick with Cade Stover if asked, and he has enough speed to reach TreVeyon Henderson or Miyan Williams in the flat (with the right angle, and assuming the Ohio State backs are targeted). At the end of the day, Herbig is a ferocious pass rusher and a sound tackler, so Wisconsin will not re-invent the wheel on Saturday. They will let their dog eat.

I expect Herbig to lead a formidable defensive attack against the Buckeyes, despite the Badgers’ relative inexperience across the board. And as the Big Ten opener for both teams, emotion and execution will play a vital role. Will they be enough the bridge the gap in pure talent? We shall see, but one thing is for certain: Herbig will bring the intensity and a special set of pass-rushing skills to Columbus. Keep an eye on him, as well as his teammates on this solid Wisconsin defense. Go Bucks!