Levy tackles struggles, punishes opponents

first_imgJEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photoIn the world of the controlled violence that is football,the goal of a linebacker is simple: Punish the ball carrier and anyone who getsin the way. It takes a special breed of player to succeed at this gruelingposition, someone who relishes every opportunity for contact and exhibitsunrivaled toughness. Wisconsin’s linebacking corps — Jonathan Casillas, DeAndreLevy and Elijah Hodge — have no difficulty meeting those requirements. Theythrive in such situations. But at least to start the season, that wasn’t the case.After an impressive defensive showcase last year, theBadgers defense, specifically the linebackers, were highly acclaimed headinginto the 2007 season. Jonathan Casillas was named to the preseason watch listfor the Chuck Bednarik award, given annually to the top defender in collegefootball. DeAndre Levy had an impressive campaign in 2006, in which he startedall 13 games and led the team with six sacks. Elijah Hodge, brother of GreenBay Packers linebacker Abdul Hodge, emerged as a special-teams ace and madesignificant contributions as a backup middle linebacker.Unfortunately, the Badgers defense failed to live up to thehigh expectations set forth this year by football pundits and coaches. Blownassignments, missed tackles and a throng of injuries plagued the entire unit. “We all had our share of injuries during camp, and itcarried over into the season and limited our productivity,” Casillas said. The breaking point for the defense came after abysmalperformances against Big Ten rivals Illinois and Penn State. Over the two-gamestretch, the defense allowed an average of 29 points and surrendered more than 800yards. “It was frustrating,” Levy said. “Even the games we won, itfelt like we lost.”Of all the players on defense, none took more heat thisseason than Levy. He did not live up to his role as a hard-hitting presence onthe field and saw a steep drop in his production, both statistically andfundamentally. Often caught out of position, Levy had trouble sheddingblockers, and his tackling and angles of pursuit left much to be desired. After the embarrassing loss to Illinois, Levy called himselfout for failing to play to his ability. “I was fed up. I had enough of being passive and takingpunishment all season defensively,” Levy said. “As a unit, we weren’t playingwell, and individually I felt like I wasn’t doing as much as I could do. I feltlike something had to be done.”Fueled by criticism and personal letdowns, Levy took thepractice field with a new sense of urgency. “I started attacking practice the next few weeks with adifferent mentality,” Levy said. “I tried to go out and put more into[practice], and I knew I’d get more out of it.” Results from the last few weeks indicate that Levy’sintensity and hard work in practice have paid off. His transformation has been startling. The player who onceseemed unfit for the rough-and-tumble role of a linebacker has shown a nastymean streak on the field. Not only was Levy making the tackles he once missed,but he began dishing out punishment with new zeal and ferocity. His defining game could not have come at a better time.After some deep soul-searching, Levy took it upon himself to personallydismantle Indiana’s high-powered offense. During the homecoming game, fans hadtrouble recognizing the blur of red and white that flew across the fieldattacking anything that resembled a Hoosier. That “blur” was Levy, whose defensiveshowcase was a huge factor in the Badgers’ 30 point drubbing of Indiana.Levy, who had arguably his best performance as a Badger,notched eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a passbreakup. Later that week, he was recognized as the Big Ten Defensive Player ofthe Week, the first accolade of his college career.”It felt good,” Levy said. “It kind of surprised me, becauseI didn’t realize that my game was that good.” It is clear from the resurgence of hard-nosed football inrecent weeks that the linebackers have taken it upon themselves to transformthe defense into the feared unit of the past. “Basically, the three linebackers started stepping up,”Casillas said. “Once we started making plays and committed to getting our headson right, it kind of got the ball rolling and it carried over from game togame.””We always had the chemistry,” Hodge added. “It’s just thefact that we are playing fast and playing to our abilities. Right now we arehealthy, and we are all flying around.”last_img

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