Wisconsin OLB Leon Jacobs’ fall camp dominance could lead to huge senior season

MADISON, Wis. — The sheer force and ease with which Leon Jacobs can move 330-pound men on the football field has become something of a spectacle in itself during Wisconsin’s football practices this fall. So when Jacobs lines up for a 1-on-1 pass rushing drill, even teammates can’t help but stare as he bulldozes his way past enormous offensive linemen like a wrecking ball through drywall.

It’s no wonder that Jacobs’ raw power has earned him two nicknames straight out of the Transformers series: Optimus Prime and Megatron.

“Leon is a beast,” Badgers inside linebacker Chris Orr said. “This fall camp you can tell he’s got a laser-sharp focus, he comes to work every day and he’s out here trying to dominate. I’m expecting him to make a lot of plays.”

Added inside linebacker T.J. Edwards: “He’s a massive dude. I think the sky’s the limit for Leon. He’s such a raw talent. He can bull you off the edge and beat you with speed. Now he’s doing really well with his moves. He’s always going to be strong setting the edge. He can cover just about anyone on the field. He’s a great guy to have on the field at all times.”

Such praise has been widespread during camp, raising expectations that the 6-foot-2, 245-pound fifth-year senior could have a special season. Jacobs’ transition from inside linebacker to the outside this spring is one of the smartest moves Wisconsin’s coaching staff made in the offseason. His presence will provide a solid pass-rushing bookend with Garret Dooley and help to fill the void left behind by NFL draft picks T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel.

Jacobs’ brawn has been evident early in camp. During a 1-on-1 pass rushing drill that pitted him against 6-7, 315-pound right tackle David Edwards, Jacobs physically lifted Edwards off the ground and ran him over on his way to the quarterback dummy. It wasn’t the first time Jacobs had pushed his way through and around the team’s linemen.

Earlier in camp, Jacobs maneuvered with such quickness and strength that he forced 328-pound left tackle Michael Deiter off balance and whipped past him toward the dummy. He beat Deiter again this week with a spin move, slipping away for an easy finish. The plays have served as indicators of the types of challenges Deiter will have in his move from center to tackle.

“It’s definitely made the transition a little harder to have to go against Leon,” Deiter said. “But it’s nice because it makes me be the best I can be. If I want to compete with him and Dooley, I’ve got to be on. I think it’s really helped me develop as a tackle getting to block that good of talent.”

When Jacobs moved to outside linebacker early in spring practice, it was no sure thing that he would earn Wisconsin’s starting job. But Jacobs has thrived to pull in front of Zack Baun and appears to have finally found a positional home after a career filled with movement.

“It’s been refreshing,” Jacobs said. “You have a chance to make an impact on every play. With this, you just go full speed and you’re having fun going 100 miles per hour.”

Jacobs’ college path has been a roller-coaster. He played outside linebacker as a freshman in 2013 but switched to inside linebacker during spring practice in 2014. He opened the 2015 season as a starter at inside linebacker before sustaining a season-ending toe injury.

Jacobs earned a medical hardship waiver, but lost his place in the rotation when he was healthy enough to return. Coaches flipped Jacobs to fullback in 2016, but injuries forced Jacobs back to inside linebacker last season. He finished the season ninth on the Badgers with 37 tackles.

Wisconsin outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar is one of Jacobs’ strongest supporters and helped him to become a full-time player.

“The first thing you notice about him is what kind of unselfish player he has been through his entire career at Wisconsin, to basically give up his own progression as a football player and do whatever is best for the football team,” Tibesar said. “And so you just love those kinds of guys that are team-first guys. So I felt very strongly that moving him back to outside would actually probably be his best position, given the physical tools that he possesses and the football ability that he has.”

Jacobs said he hadn’t spent any time wondering where he might be if he had played outside linebacker all along. But Tibesar, who is in his third season with Wisconsin, certainly has contemplated what life would be like if he had Jacobs in his position room before the spring.

“I think he’d be a guy that’d be ready to terrorize some people in the Big Ten,” Tibesar said. “It would’ve been fun the last two years to have gotten him ready and where he’d be at. He’d certainly be much further along on his learning progression.”

Jacobs possesses raw strength and athleticism, so when he moved to outside linebacker in the spring, he excelled at creating power to push people backwards. But there were several important elements Tibesar needed to teach him, such as alignment and stance rules, how to play with more finesse as an edge rusher, how to attack, how to set up a blocker and how to generate a counter move when the first maneuver didn’t work.

Tibesar also tried to teach Jacobs the best way to quickly read defenses. Sometimes, Jacobs could be lined up on a defensive tackle and other times a tight end. Jacobs’ responsibilities would differ if the offense lined up in a bunch set compared to a spread, for example. In short, Tibesar wanted to provide Jacobs with as many repetitions as possible to build up his muscle memory so his reactions would be instantaneous.

“But he’s got a very high football IQ,” Tibesar said. “He works hard at learning and he’s one of those guys, he really doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’ll make it, he’ll get coached up and get corrected and you rarely see him make that same mistake twice.”

Where Jacobs excels, according to teammates, is in his ability to set the edge, which is perhaps the most vital component of playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.

“Leon will plant his foot, put his hand in somebody’s chin and force that ball back to us,” Orr said. “I think that’s one thing that Leon brings to the table that’s great, as well as his pass-rushing ability and his length. If he can’t get there, he’s going to put his hand up and most likely bat it down. He’s got a lot of different skills.”

Many players study film of themselves to improve technique. Because Jacobs doesn’t have much game film of himself  playing outside linebacker, he has relied on video of several players, including former Badgers outside linebackers Joe Schobert, Watt and Biegel — each an NFL draft pick. Former Wisconsin defensive lineman Pat Muldoon, now a graduate assistant with the Badgers, provided Jacobs with NFL film. Throughout the spring and summer, Jacobs said he studied the techniques of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Bud Dupree and James Harrison.

Jacobs is hoping his film work and time on the field since March will culminate in the best season of his career after a winding journey at Wisconsin. If his fall camp performance is any indication, he appears well on his way.

“Because I switched all those positions, it made me the person I am today,” Jacobs said. “It made me more mentally tough, physically tough. So it all worked out.”

The post Wisconsin OLB Leon Jacobs’ fall camp dominance could lead to huge senior season appeared first on Land of 10.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.