Tatum Grass pushes for bigger role among Badgers’ inside linebackers

Linebackers Tatum Grass (right) and Spencer Lytle team up on a tackle last week. Grass, a sophomore, is trying to earn a spot in the inside linebacker rotation with a strong spring. 

COLTEN BARTHOLOMEW [email protected]

Bob Bostad is direct when it comes to which players are in the lineup as inside linebackers for the University of Wisconsin.

“My philosophy is … I want the absolute best player out on the field,” Bostad said. “I’m going to play him until I feel I can’t.”

Making headway and earning reps at inside linebacker is a difficult task, with two stars at the position in senior Jack Sanborn and junior Leo Chenal. But sophomore Tatum Grass was able to do that last season despite being a redshirt freshman walk-on and still new to the position.

Grass made his collegiate debut last season after taking a redshirt in 2019. Playing mostly on special teams, Grass appeared in each of the Badgers’ seven games and tallied five tackles. He played sparingly on defense as well and cracked the two-deep lineup in Week 5 against Northwestern when senior Mike Maskalunas was dealing with an injury.

Bostad, who’s in his fifth year coaching inside linebackers for UW, said Grass earned his trust by becoming more assertive and taking command of his role.

“Tate’s a guy that has some higher-level physical traits,” Bostad said.

“Was just (about) putting it all together, being able to understand what we’re doing out there on the field. You know, if you’re going to be an inside linebacker, you’ve got to be vocal — you’re making a lot of calls, you’re making a lot of adjustments. He’s gained my trust by doing those things, that’s the starting point. And then after that, he’s started to be more productive out on the field and he’s playing more physical, he’s playing more confident. And that’s been a real positive in (spring practices) so far.”

Grass was a stellar two-way player for Holmen High School at defensive end and tight end. He chose UW over scholarship offers from Division II programs and initially was projected as an outside linebacker. He moved to the inside linebacker position before his first fall training camp and has been learning from players like Chris Orr, Sanborn and Chenal ever since.

He admits it was a difficult move, struggling to be confident in his play early on. Learning the playbook and a new style of play took time.

“That was a pretty big transition, just learning how to play with a lot lower pads, I would say, and a lot more lateral movement,” Grass said. “I think what helped me the most was just the drill work with coach Bostad, really just kind of teaching me how to move like a true inside linebacker.”

But getting reps on the field bolstered Grass, who has carried that momentum this offseason. He’s been impressing coaches and teammates during spring — experienced players like Sanborn, Chenal and Maskalunas see Grass earning more reps with his play.

“The biggest difference I’ve noticed with Tate is his confidence,” Maskalunas said. “I think one of the things coming in as a young guy that a lot of people struggle with is just having the confidence to make those calls and make those adjustments on the fly. Really just knowing how to be a commander of the defense, which is one of the biggest responsibilities of being an inside ‘backer. So I think Tate’s done a great job of really stepping more into that role, coming out of his shell and being more of a vocal, confident guy out there.”

Added Chenal: “We already know what he was capable of, how athletic he was, just his strength. So just being able to like step out there and be more aggressive with what he does. He’s making a lot of productive plays. He’s grown a lot, his confidence has stepped up and as a result, he’s making those plays.”

After recovering from COVID-19 before the season began, Grass went from serving on the scout team to practicing against one as he rose through the depth chart. Spring practices give him valuable reps to learn while going against starting-caliber players.

“You’re seeing guys that will challenge you, guys that will beat you,” Sanborn said. “And that’s what it is, it’s all about competition. On every play, you’re either going to be winning your rep or losing your rep to somebody else. Everything like that, I think just improves you as a player and gets you better.”

Making inroads this spring is crucial for Grass.

Maskalunas and redshirt freshmen Malik Reed and Jordan Turner have missed time this spring, opening chances for Grass to prove himself. Cracking the lineup in the fall will be even more challenging with four-star recruit Jake Ratzlaff joining the group, as well as the possibility of four-star safety prospect Braelon Allen moving to the position.

Earning his first college snaps and getting in the mix was the first step for Grass. Keeping himself at that spot is his next challenge.

“The first snaps out there was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually on the field, I reached that goal of becoming a part of the team, like playing on the team,’” he said. “Now it’s time to become an impact player, like I have a chance to make plays for my team.”