Middleton's defense has great potential

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton defensive coordinator Tom Cabalka has a young, but gifted unit this fall./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Tom Cabalka knows he may never have another a defense like the one he enjoyed in 2014.

Cabalka, Middleton’s defensive coordinator and a member of the Cardinals’ staff for nearly four decades now, fielded one of the state’s top defenses a year ago. And after that unit allowed just 7.1 points per game in the regular season and 9.2 points overall, Cabalka called it the best defense he’d ever coached.

“They were pretty amazing,” Cabalka said.

They sure were. But gone are 10 players that earned some form of all-Big Eight Conference honors, including first-team all-state cornerback Alex Wood and first-team all-conference defensive linemen Nikko Miller and Alex Wills, linebacker Hayden Denson and linebacker Brian Chapman.

The lone returning starter is junior safety Joe Ludwig, one of the top players in Wisconsin in the Class of 2017. So Cabalka knows there’s a lot of work to be done for his group to play at a high level early in the season.

Middleton begins its season Friday at Janesville Parker at 7 p.m.

“We have a lot of juniors and it might take four or five games before we’re where we want to be,” Cabalka said. “But they’re going to get better, a lot better. It just might take a little more time.”

There aren’t many coordinators in the state more devoted to, or successful at their craft than Cabalka.

Year in and year out, Cabalka’s defenses rank among the best in the Big Eight. And while this year’s group might need some time, they’re also in the hands of a maestro.

“It really helps to have Tom over there,” Middleton head coach Tim Simon said.

It should help to have Ludwig back, as well.

Ludwig, the son of former University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, was an honorable-mention all-conference selection last year. But Ludwig’s role — both on and off the field — will expand.

Ludwig (6-1, 195) has the physical and mental acumen to be a star. That’s why he’s one of the top juniors in the state and college recruiters are pursuing him hard.

“Joe just has a nose for the football,” Cabalka said. “If he’s not our leading tackler, I’d be surprised. And he’ll be a leader as well. He should have a great year.”

The same should hold true of senior middle linebacker Garrett Graf.

Graf, the nephew of former Wisconsin and NFL standout Rick Graf, was the top reserve linebacker last year. This season, Graf (5-11, 192) is bigger, stronger and faster and should lead the front seven.

“Last year, my head was spinning,” said Graf, who was named one of Middleton’s captains. “Now I get it.

“And I think we’ve already had a lot of guys step up. I think some of us were groomed really well from last year’s guys and that should help us this year.”

There’s plenty of talent for the Cardinals’ defense to remain elite.

Seniors Mitch Andrews and Cody Markel were key reserves last year and seem poised for big final seasons. Standout senior left guard Ka’Juan Redus will also see some early time at nose tackle, while senior Saygo Henderson gets first crack at defensive tackle.

“Right now, we might need to rotate a couple offensive guys in there,” Cabalka said of his defensive line. “But hopefully after a few games, we’ll get some guys that step up and we won’t have people going both ways.”

Senior Travis Raffel, who missed last year with a torn ACL, is back and won the strongside linebacker job in fall camp. And Cabalka said junior weakside linebacker Caleb Cymbalak “has good hands and a terrific base about him.”

“I think our linebackers are going to pretty good,” Cabalka said. “They work really, really hard. It’s just a matter of getting it all figured out.”

Junior C.J. Fermanich and senior Griffin Gussel will be the starting cornerbacks, while juniors Jackson Grimm and Noah Roberson will play in nickel and dime packages.

Senior Kevin Ripp will man the strong safety position, opposite of Ludwig.

“There’s still a ton of talent here,” said Graf, noting that Middleton has gone 17-1 at the JV level the past two seasons. “We’re fully capable of repeating (as conference champs).

“We have enough talent and guys that are hungry. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Cabalka agreed.

“We’ve got a lot of players that are smart as (heck) and a lot of guys with a lot of ability,” Cabalka said. “It might take a little time, but I think we’ll be pretty good.”

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