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Inside linebackers are heart and soul of Badgers’ elite defense

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 11/26/2021 Randy Johnson, Star Tribune

So, you want to run the football against the Wisconsin defense? You're gonna have to go through Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, a pair of inside linebackers who might be the nation's best duo.

Chenal, a junior, and Sanborn, a senior, set a physical tone for the Badgers, who lead the nation in total defense (233.3 yards allowed per game) and rushing defense (59.8) and rank fifth in scoring defense (15.8 points allowed per game). Chenal leads Wisconsin with 92 tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss, while Sanborn is second with 81 tackles and 14 stops for loss.

They certainly have the attention of Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.

"They pride themselves on just how physically they play — those two linebackers in particular,'' Sanford said.

At 6-2 and 236 pounds, Sanborn has the prototypical size for an inside linebacker. Chenal, however, is a monster, checking in at 6-2 and 261.

"Sanborn is just a great football player,'' Sanford said. "You watch him on tape, and you think he's small. He's not. He's just next to Leo Chenal, who is arguably one of the largest inside linebackers I've ever seen at any level. He's able to move so well at that size.''

Chenal has amassed his stats, which also include 6½ sacks and four quarterback hurries, in nine games after missing the first two because of an injury. He's a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker. Sanborn, who has three sacks and four hurries, was on the preseason watch list for five honors.

"They're very special,'' Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "You look at the career Sanborn has had and the season Chenal is having. They're guys who've played football at a high level for a long time. As a competitor, you love to play against those type of guys. … They make a lot of stuff happen.''

Sanford is especially impressed with how the duo diagnoses plays so quickly.

"They see ball, get ball, and they do it as well as anybody you can find in the country,'' he said. "They're so instinctive, and they play within their scheme. They're going to meet you at the line of scrimmage almost every snap.''

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