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Wisconsin Football Benching Its Defensive Captain Still a Head Scratcher

Wisconsin football benching its All-Big Ten inside linebacker wasn’t on my bingo card.



Wisconsin football; Badgers inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta.
Sep 2, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Maema Njongmeta (55) during the game against the Buffalo Bulls at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Maema Njongmeta, a captain and 2022 All-Big Ten inside linebacker for Wisconsin football, has found himself in a backup role under first-year head coach Luke Fickell. It’s a topic that hasn’t gone unnoticed among the Badgers faithful and certainly wasn’t on my bingo card entering the season — but here we are. 

The reduction in Njongmeta’s playing time certainly raised questions initially, but there are reasons behind it.

Wisconsin Football Made a Big Change at Inside Linebacker in Week 4

Maema Njongmeta played just one snap against Purdue in a specific fourth-and-10 situation at the end of the game. The Badgers coaching staff opted for Jake Chaney at inside linebacker due to the opponent’s desire to spread out the Wisconsin football defensive players. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t buy it. The change seemed too abrupt to be a gameplan tactic. Something must have happened behind the scenes…right? Wrong.

I assumed Njongmeta would see more action against pro-style offenses with tighter formations, considering he played 22 snaps against Rutgers. However, against Iowa this past weekend, Njongmeta only played six snaps for the Wisconsin football team, according to Pro Football Focus.

This limited playing time is unexpected, given Njongmeta’s impressive track record. He started 11 games last season, leading the team with 95 tackles en route to third-team All-Big Ten honors. He also started the first three games of this season. 

Badgers Coaching Staff Must Go Off Its Own Evaluations

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Wisconsin football coaching staff sees Njongmeta as the backup to Jake Chaney. Chaney has started the past three games and has performed well, ranking second on the team with 36 tackles, including a career-high 11-tackle performance against Iowa.

It’s bizarre to witness a captain and former starter take on a reduced role, but the coaching staff is entitled to make changes based on their evaluation of player performance. This situation presents a challenge for Njongmeta, who is still a team captain and a voice in the locker room. 

Based on player evaluations and performance, I’d be crazy if I didn’t at least mention that Jordan Turner is struggling. He has a team-high 10 missed tackles and routinely takes poor angles on perimeter plays — but he seems to be getting a pass. 

PFF isn’t the end-all, be-all, but it’s a valuable data point. Njongmeta grades out favorably over both players, but particularly Turner, and is the highest-graded run defender on the team, an area where the Badgers struggle to defend.

I may be missing something here, but I digress.

Luke Fickell emphasized the importance of consistency and leadership from players like Njongmeta, even when their roles change. It’s a challenging situation, no doubt. Still, it is part of the game, and Njongmeta must adapt. 

In the end, it’s clear that Maema Njongmeta is facing a transition, and the coaching staff believes that other players may better suit the team’s needs in certain situations. As the Wisconsin football season progresses, it will be interesting to see how Njongmeta and the Badgers continue to evolve.

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Trevor Lovec is a freelance sports writer, correspondent, and a diehard Northern Iowa fan. He covers Wisconsin football & basketball, plus a little Badgers recruiting.