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Wisconsin LB Leon Jacobs hoping for big year after paying dues at multiple positions

MADISON, Wis. -- Several moments have transpired during Leon Jacobs' football career at Wisconsin in which he felt like a missing puzzle piece of sorts. He knew he was talented and athletic enough to fit in somewhere. But given all his position changes, he sometimes wondered where that might be.

Take last season, which was among the most trying times of his Badgers tenure. Jacobs arrived on campus back in 2013 as a promising outside linebacker. But he found himself opening fall camp of 2016 at fullback, of all places, only to move to inside linebacker in the second week of the season because of an injury to teammate Chris Orr. Jacobs felt a step slow and less prepared than he would have liked as a reserve. So he approached then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and asked what he could do to get on the field.

"And I'll always remember this," Jacobs said. "He said, 'Sometimes on really good teams, good players get left out.' It's just the way it goes. So if I were to get in, I had to make the most of my opportunities.

"It 100 percent helped me get through. At least I knew he recognized that I was a good player and wasn't just like this person who wasn't good enough to play."

Jacobs' positivity and work ethic has allowed him to push through an unconventional path he could not have foreseen. As Wisconsin closed spring practice last Friday and now heads toward fall camp, Jacobs has returned to his roots at outside linebacker. And, if things finally go according to plan, he could be in for a breakout season as a fifth-year senior.

"Let me start out by saying Leon Jacobs is the biggest human being I've ever seen in my life," Badgers outside linebacker Zack Baun said of the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Jacobs. "He's athletic as hell. He can do a lot of things. They move him around because he's capable, and he's strong, fast and powerful. He has everything you need at either inside linebacker, outside linebacker or fullback."

For once, Jacobs is hoping to stick at a single position and create the impact he knows he is capable of attaining. After playing outside linebacker as a true freshman in 2013, Jacobs was moved to inside linebacker during spring practice in 2014. That fall, he recorded 12 tackles in his first career start as a sophomore against Illinois and rotated between inside and outside. He then opened the 2015 season as one of the Badgers' starting inside linebackers. But Jacobs was ejected for a targeting call in Week 3 against Troy, and Orr registered 14 tackles in his place. Orr took over the starting role the following week, and Jacobs promptly suffered a season-ending toe injury.

Jacobs earned a medical hardship waver. But by the time he was healthy enough to return the following season, Wisconsin's inside linebacker depth was immense and he had lost his hold on a spot in the rotation.

"I was happy for those guys, but obviously it sucks because you can't do anything about it," Jacobs said. "You want to be out there playing with your fellas, and you get hurt."

With Wisconsin stacked inside, and with future All-American T.J. Watt and three-time all-Big Ten selection Vince Biegel outside, Badgers coach Paul Chryst suggested Jacobs move to fullback. The switch came as a surprise to Jacobs, but he was willing to try anything to play. One week into the 2016 season, however, Jacobs flipped to inside linebacker after Orr's injury and spent the year attempting to play catch-up.

Jacobs finished the year ninth on the team with 37 tackles. He even recorded a 25-yard fourth-quarter interception of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner in the regular season finale to help Wisconsin secure a 31-17 victory. But after Wisconsin's Cotton Bowl victory against Western Michigan, Jacobs approached coaches about moving to outside linebacker for his final season. He showed during spring practice why the switch could prove beneficial for the Badgers' Big Ten West title defense hopes.

Garret Dooley has locked up one starting outside linebacker spot, but Jacobs could work his way into a starting role on the other side if he continues to excel. Baun opened the spring as a potential starter, and those two will compete for playing time, as will junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel in the outside linebacker rotation.

"I'm excited for Leon and about Leon," Chryst said Friday after his team's spring game. "There's a guy that would do anything for this team, and he did it. Last year at this time he was playing fullback. Then he jumped in and we had injuries and he was playing inside backer, but I think the outside is a really good fit for him. … I think he's a guy that is capable of having a really big impact on this team, and I'm excited for him to have that senior year that you're playing your best football. He works. He's talented. I think he'll be really a big part of what we do defensively."

Jacobs enters 2017 among the most experienced players on Wisconsin's roster, having played in 45 career games. But he is still trying to find his niche with the Badgers. And this year, he hopes, he'll represent a final piece to the team's puzzle on a path toward maintaining an elite-level defense.

"I think I made some plays in spring that allows me to stay alive in the games with those guys," Jacobs said. "I've set goals for myself. I'll have every play on a checklist to put down did I win or lose that rep? If you go through everything like that, then the rest will take care of itself in terms of the bigger picture stuff."