Middleton's defense could be deadly

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Middleton defensive coordinator Tom Cabalka (left) could field a top-flight unit this year./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Tom Cabalka loves linebackers.

They are often tackling machines that can also cover, blitz, fill holes and lead a football team.

Give Cabalka three gifted linebackers and Middleton’s longtime defensive coordinator will usually produce a first-rate unit.

The 2016 season could be the latest example of that.

Cabalka has a trio of linebackers that could rank among the better groups he’s had at Middleton. And as the Cardinals prepare for their 2016 opener at Madison Memorial Friday, Cabalka is extremely optimistic about his defense — and his linebackers.

“I think this is really going to be a good group,” the normally understated Cabalka said of his linebackers. “We should be able to do a lot of things with these guys.”

Middleton’s defense, always a strength under Cabalka, should be extremely stout again in 2016. But the linebacking group has the ability to become both playmakers and difference-makers.

It begins with Joe Ludwig, who was the Big Eight Conference’s Defensive Back of the Year in 2015. This season, Ludwig (6-1, 212) will move from safety to weakside linebacker, where his combination of speed, strength and instincts could make him a tackling machine.

“I just think he’s going to be dynamic in the run game,” Cabalka said. “He’s got a chance to be awfully special from that spot.”

Ludwig has put on 20 pounds of muscle since last season ended and also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. Ludwig has drawn some Division 1 interest from schools such as Wyoming, Northern Illinois and Rutgers. And Ludwig knows a big senior season could do wonders for his portfolio.

“A lot of schools just want to see how the year will play out,” Ludwig said. “I really grinded in the offseason and want to have a great senior season.”

Senior middle linebacker Caleb Cymbalak was an honorable-mention all-conference player last year, and should be poised for even bigger and better in 2016. And junior strongside linebacker Shane Bick has been one of the Cardinals’ standouts during preseason practices.

“Caleb can really run,” Cabalka said of Cymbalak. “He’s terrific coming downhill.

“Shane can run too, and he’ll put a lick on you. It should be a really good group.”

For the linebackers to excel, though, Middleton must be stout up front. And that group is a work in progress.

Cabalka is extremely excited about senior defensive ends Max Elliott and Nate Helbach. Senior Harrison Bielski (5-11, 225) will start at nose tackle, while senior Roman Kryshak is the frontrunner at the other tackle spot.

“We have some questions right now and we’ll see how things shake out,” Cabalka said. “But I think this will eventually be a really good group.”

Cabalka feels the same way about his secondary.
When the 2015 season ended, it appeared the Cardinals would have honorable-mention all-conference cornerback C.J. Fermanich and Ludwig back to anchor the secondary. But Fermanich was moved to quarterback and Ludwig was switched to linebacker.

The cupboard is far from bare, though.

Senior Jack Smith and junior Cole Ragsdale could be a potent pair of cornerbacks. Cabalka has extremely high hopes for junior strong safety Luke Ballweg, while senior Tre Turner has the speed and range to grow into a terrific free safety.

“There are some guys who haven’t seen the field a great deal,” Cabalka said. “But they’re definitely talented guys. I think they’ll grow into their roles and that will eventually become a pretty strong group.”

Cabalka has strong groups almost every year, and this season should be more of the same. It’s one of the many reasons Middleton believes a third straight Big Eight Conference title is in the cards.

“Our goals are always high and they’ll be high again this year,” Ludwig said. “It starts win conference, but then we want to take it up a step and win state. That may seem like a pretty high goal, but we’re ready to get after it.”
 

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