It's only April, and yet the Wisconsin football program was already dealt a significant blow in regards to its 2013 season. On April 5, defensive end/linebacker David Gilbert decided to call it quits because of nagging foot injuries, which means he will miss his senior season at Wisconsin.
Gilbert has missed all of spring practice because of surgery to repair ligaments in his foot, the same foot he has had multiple surgeries on during his college career and that kept him out of the majority of the 2011 season.
With a new coaching staff in place, Gilbert was missing valuable time this spring, especially considering his pending move to become an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 formation.
Gilbert was one of the Badgers' top pass rushers last season, recording four sacks and three forced fumbles. He likely would have blitzed early and often for Wisconsin in his senior year, but now head coach Gary Andersen will have to look elsewhere to fill this noticeable void in the Badger defense.
His leadership and ability to make plays will surely be missed, and considering his athleticism, Gilbert seemed to be a great fit to make the adjustment to linebacker. Fortunately for Wisconsin, depth is not an issue in the front seven, which will make it easier to try and replace Gilbert's production.
Who should replace Gilbert at outside linebacker?
Along with quarterback Curt Phillips, Brendan Kelly was granted a sixth year of eligibility, and like Gilbert, Kelly will make the transition to outside linebacker in the 3-4 package. He is still recovering from a minor surgical procedure on his hip, but he should be back to football activities soon.
Kelly tied for the team lead in sacks last season with five, and assuming he locks down one of the outside linebacker jobs, that gives the Badgers three sure-fire starting linebackers heading into the 2013 season—Kelly, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong.
Standing at a towering 6'6" and 250 pounds, Kelly has a few pounds on Gilbert, but he also has a few inches on him, which means Kelly could really disrupt the quarterback by batting down passes, or at least affecting his decision making.
Fellow senior Tyler Dippel could be the player to step into that vacant fourth linebacker position. Dippel also recorded five sacks last season as a pass-rushing specialist, but at 267 pounds, he may need to lose some weight if he wants to join the linebacker corps.
Another possible replacement for Gilbert could be senior Pat Muldoon, who recorded 2.5 sacks last season. Whoever loses out on the battle between Dippel and Muldoon may just slide into the defensive line along with seniors Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen. Although in the 3-4 scheme, ends are typically between 285-300 pounds in order to clog up the lanes and take on more offensive linemen.
Some wild cards to keep an eye on are sophomore Jesse Hayes, who looks the part as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker according to Badger Nation's Benjamin Worgull, and redshirt freshman Vince Biegel, a highly touted recruit coming out of high school that sat out last season with a foot injury.
We haven't even mentioned two of Wisconsin's top recruits from the 2013 class, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Both played defensive end in high school and will arrive at Madison following their graduation.
It's difficult to really gauge who winds up taking Gilbert's place because of how many injuries Wisconsin is dealing with this spring. Not only has Kelly missed time, but Dippel's shoulder has kept him out of action, not to mention Armstrong and Allen being out with injuries of their own.
All of these injuries are even more unfortunate considering the new system players must learn, but hopefully for Wisconsin, the experience of its seniors helps to make the transition quicker and smoother.
Theoretically, Gilbert will be replaced on the field, but the intangibles he brings cannot be substituted. His size was an ideal fit for the outside linebacker, pass-rushing role, so it's not only a shame that Gilbert will miss his senior year, but also that he will miss an opportunity that could have helped him grow as a player.
Having an effective pass-rusher like Gilbert would also help mask the inexperience Wisconsin has in the secondary, especially since Aranda wishes to be more aggressive in coverage.
The Badgers can help hide Gilbert's absence with their bevy of seniors, but none of them quite bring what Gilbert does to the table.