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Jack Sanborn's steady personality anchors Badgers' defense

Jack Sanborn's steady personality anchors Badgers' defense

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Jack Sanborn is an undisputed leader of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense.

That fact is easy to learn as one hears the respect his teammates have for him, his play and how he handles himself away from the field. But what draws other people to the junior inside linebacker? What makes his peers look to him for advice and a spark on the field?

That’s harder to answer.

Maybe because it’s more than just one trait he possesses, or maybe because one would need to be around Sanborn each day to truly grasp it. But one thing’s for sure — Sanborn’s esteem among the Badgers is of the highest levels.

“He is a pro,” redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz said.

“In every aspect — leadership, on the field, the way he plays — he’s a pro, full stop. Someone’s going to get a great dude eventually. Love the dude he is off the field, too. He’s a genuine leader, everybody looks up to him.”

Heading into the UW’s game Saturday against Minnesota (3-3), Sanborn leads the Badgers (2-3) in tackles (36) and has aided in getting a pass rush with an increased role as a blitzer. They’ll arguably need his best game of the season to slow the Gophers’ rushing attack and help snap a three-game skid.

Getting Sanborn’s best in big moments has become the Badgers’ expectation as the end of his third year in the program draws closer.

“Gosh, Jack is a game-charger,” senior safety Collin Wilder said. “That’s kind of how he’s been since he’s gotten here. … We rely on him to be that guy for us day-in, day-out and he steps up every time.”

Hard to pinpoint

Jim Leonhard’s recall of moments and events is uncanny, especially when considering the years he’s spent in football. So when Leonhard, UW’s defensive coordinator, can’t pluck out a story that shows when Sanborn became one of the team’s leaders, it’s significant.

“I would say there’s not really that specific moment,” Leonhard said. “Some players there is — something happens, there’s adversity, they speak up, or with their play. I mean, I think it starts with just the consistency, one, with his play, but two, just personality and how he goes about day in and day out. You hear the small conversations he has with guys, motivating (them) and just continuing to push.”

Sanborn and the defense has been pushed to be nearly perfect the last three weeks as the Badgers’ offense has struggled to score points. Last week’s loss at Iowa was the first time the defense has allowed more than 17 points this season.

But through the difficult nature of the season and the losses of the past month, Sanborn has been a consistent presence both on and off the field. Leonhard credits that to Sanborn’s steady nature.

“Once guys respect that out of you, they know what they’re going to get day in and day out, I think they start to gravitate to that,” Leonhard said.

“And then all of a sudden you see the plays being made and all of a sudden you gain a little bit bigger voice. Then there’s another group of guys that kind of notice it and then all of a sudden you realize he’s got a great position in that locker room as far as being a leader. Doesn’t always have to be vocal — he can speak up when needed and he can also just say, ‘Just follow. Just follow my lead,’ and do that as well. So to me it with Jack, it really does start with that consistency.”

A stiff test

Led by Sanborn, the Badgers have the best rushing defense in the Big Ten Conference. The group ranks third in the FBS in allowing 83.2 rushing yards per game.

Minnesota will challenge that metric with a big offensive line and Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten’s running back of the year. Ibrahim leads the conference in rushing (925 yards), rushing touchdowns (15) and has become the lynchpin of the Minnesota offense. Minnesota averages about 50 more yards rushing in its wins than its losses.

“They’re probably the most vertical run team that we’ve played this year,” Sanborn said. “They want to get behind their pads and run north-south. They’ve got a big line and they’re able to do that. It’s going to be physical up front and we’re going to have to be more physical than them.”

Sanborn said before the season playing more confidently was one of his top individual goals.

Earlier in his career he felt as though he wasn’t trusting himself and what he saw on the field, which prevented him from making as many plays he believed he should. He says he’s grown in that area and he’s developed faith in the defense as a whole.

“I think just being confident not only in what I’m doing but also what everyone else is doing. Just kind of having that trust in everyone in the defense,” Sanborn said of his progress.

“I think that’s something that I have done well at. Because I look at the beginning of games last year and kind of don’t think I was that confident and not really making the right reads and not playing fast enough. I think that’s definitely something I’ve taken into (account) this year, but also continue to improve.”

The work Sanborn did during the modified offseason and the effort he continues to put in at practice and studying film stands out to UW coach Paul Chryst.

“He works at it, you know? He practices every day and in the offseason you know he put the time in,” Chryst said. “I also think that he’s smart enough to learn from the experiences that he’s had previously.

“(He’s) just more confident in the game and more knowledgeable on what you have to do to be successful. But he has been playing really good football and I love being around him and watching him play every game. I love seeing how he approaches each day. He’s talented, loves the game, works at it. You know, it’s not by accident that he is playing good football.”


Who has the edge when the Badgers host the Gophers?

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