The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.
The first recruiting letter Zack Baun received from his dream school was addressed to Zack Brown. But, considering Wisconsin would end up being the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to offer the Brown Deer, Wis., native a scholarship, the Badgers’ mistake was easy to forgive.
It wasn’t as if observers of the Wisconsin prep football scene didn’t know Baun. It was just that he happened to be starring on the wrong side of the ball for his ability to clearly translate to the next level. He excelled as a dual-threat quarterback, winning the state’s offensive player of the year award as a senior with 59 touchdowns, but had never played a down of defense despite his athleticism.
Baun committed to then-Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen as a grey shirt, meaning he would not join the team until the spring of his freshman year. And it wasn’t until Andersen’s successor, Paul Chryst, took over and gave Baun his full ride that the Badgers proposed moving him to outside linebacker, showing Baun film of what linebacker Joe Schobert was able to do in the scheme before he moved on to start in the NFL for the Browns and Jaguars.
“So I’m like, this dude is covering, rushing the passer and doing everything? Yeah, I want to do that,” Baun said.
So Zack Brown the quarterback morphed into Zack Baun the edge rusher.
“Yeah, that’s kind of been my journey of my career,” Baun said, “being the underdog coming out of high school and showing myself and the world what I can do.”
Baun’s transition was slow and steady. He had to wait out the productive linebackers in front of him, such as Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards and Andrew Van Ginkel, all of whom left the Badgers after 2018 for NFL rosters.
By 2019, Baun was ready. He finished among the nation’s leaders with 19.5 tackles for lost yardage and 12.5 sacks, earning second-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-Big Ten honors.
Given his short time playing outside linebacker, he is viewed as a “boom or bust” prospect, according to NFL.com.
“One of the teams identified me as like ‘the toy’ — a can-do-it-all linebacker,” Baun said. “Give me the opportunity to rush the edge, play off the ball, drop into coverage, use all my skill sets to the fullest.”
Baun hasn’t missed playing quarterback. He said he was mostly pulling the ball on read option keepers and outmaneuvering his future linebacking brethren.
His love of defense continues to grow.
“Before moving to defense I didn’t know there were so many detailed intricacies of the game,” Baun said. “I’m just so intrigued by the knowledge of the game that you need to have to really be the player you want to be.
“If you narrow it down enough, you can anticipate a play before it happens. You’re at such an advantage. There are definitely keys throughout the game that the offense is just giving you.”