Leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, The Post is breaking down the draft class by position in an 11-part series. Tomorrow: cornerbacks.
Wisconsin was playing the role of Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire.” Zack Baun was Renee Zellweger.
The Badgers recruited Baun with the idea of him switching positions, following in their tradition of turning athletic high school quarterbacks into linebackers. But all the kid from Brown Deer, Wis., needed to hear was his in-state school offering a scholarship.
They had him at hello.
“I just wanted to go to school for free and get that burden off my family and be able to get my college degree,” he said in a phone interview. “Anywhere, any position, was good enough for me.”
What he heard from the Big Ten school made it an easy call. His only other scholarship offer was from South Dakota State, which wanted the then run-heavy quarterback to play offense as an athlete. Wisconsin showed him film of Joe Schobert, who became a fourth-round pick of the Browns after also coming to school as a quarterback before moving to outside linebacker.
“I remember being a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed recruit, saying, ‘Wait, this dude is getting to rush the quarterback, getting to get sacks, tackles for loss, drop in coverage, gets to play the run, do all these different things?’ ” Baun recalled. “And I said, ‘I think I’m athletic enough to do that.’ And it worked out for me.”
That would be an understatement.
After adjusting to the position change and overcoming a serious left foot injury that slowed his progress early in his college career, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Baun emerged as a vital piece to Wisconsin’s stifling defense and is a projected first- or second-round draft pick. He’s rated as the fourth-best linebacker in the draft by CBSSports.com and second by NFL.com, valued for his work ethic and positional versatility, the ability to rush the quarterback, play the run, cover tight ends and running backs in space while also being a factor on special teams.
“If you can get him in position where he can get one-on-ones with guys, he’s going to have success,” Wisconsin outside linebacker coach Bobby April said. “It’s hard to find faults in all that stuff he’s doing. … I think the sky’s the limit for him if he gets into the right system. I love what his potential will be.”
That’s not to say the transition was easy. When Baun got to Wisconsin, he was admittedly “punched in the face” a few times early in his first fall camp. It was like he was learning a new language. In high school, Baun didn’t do much throwing as a quarterback, so reading defenses wasn’t his strong suit. He didn’t know the difference between a cover-2 and a cover-3 scheme.