MOBILE, Ala. — Most times, when linebackers talk about quarterbacks, it’s in regard to tormenting them on the field. At the University of Wisconsin, the linebackers are more likely to discuss their own exploits at the position.
The school has produced a number of NFL linebackers in recent years, including the Giants’ Ryan Connelly along with T.J. Watt, T.J. Edwards and Andrew Van Ginkel. Each player arrived on campus not as the burly defender he would become but as a high school quarterback.
Next in that line could be Zack Baun, the 6-3, 240-pounder who spent this week at the Senior Bowl. He was the state of Wisconsin’s high school player of the year as a senior, throwing for 1,936 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 1,837 yards and 39 scores. He showed up in Madison at 205 pounds and never having played a defensive snap in his life, spent a redshirt season in the weight room, and eventually had 12.5 sacks his senior year in college.
What made Wisconsin look at Baun — or any of the other QB-to-LB converts — and decide that they could make the transition?
“They saw something,” Baun said. “Athleticism. A frame. Something they can work with. A project.”
In that regard, Baun would be a great fit for the Giants and new coach Joe Judge. He’s probably not going to be a first-round pick for the team, certainly not if they keep their fourth overall selection. But at some point the Giants might look at Baun and, just like the staff at Wisconsin, see something that can help them.
That, after all, is the underlying philosophy that Judge is bringing to the Giants. The kind of open-mindedness that turns high school quarterbacks into NFL linebackers. Or, as happened at his last job, a college quarterback into a Super Bowl MVP wide receiver: Julian Edelman.
“Don’t try to shove round pegs into square holes,” Judge said at his introductory news conference earlier this month. “Figure out what you have. Let them play to their strengths. Don’t sit in a meeting and tell me what you don’t have in a player. Don’t tell me they can’t do certain things; tell me what they can do, and then we’ll figure out as coaches, because that’s our job, how we can use that.”
Maybe it won’t be Baun. Maybe it will be another player who has a background at one position but will intrigue the Giants into drafting him for another seemingly foreign role. But chances are high that at some point this offseason, whether in the draft or in free agency, the Giants are going to make a pick that might look like a head-scratcher until the plan is unveiled.
“How many castoffs do you see around the league in the NFL on another team that everyone says, ‘Wow, how’d they get that out of them?’ ” Judge noted (without saying that it’s usually the Patriots who sprinkle the magic dust on lacrosse players or practice squad flotsam or guys from some other unorthodox background). “Maybe they just weren’t closing their eyes to what they could do. We have to make sure we’re sitting down, we’re patient with our players, we fully evaluate them, we find out what they can do to be an asset and that we’re not foolish enough to not use them.”
If it turns out Baun comes to the Giants, it would mean a reunion with Connelly. Baun said he would enjoy that. It would allow them to catch up and talk about their time as college teammates. And, of course, compare their quarterbacking histories.
“He won a state championship, I won offensive player of the year,” Baun said.
Who was better?
“I would say me.”
Not that it matters. Some paths to the NFL aren’t so direct as to be able to decide such debates.
Baun was asked what he would have said four years ago about the prospect of being drafted as a pass-rushing linebacker.
“I would have said you were crazy,” he said.
The Giants are starting to open themselves up to that kind of insanity more and more.