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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Inside linebackers boast ability, depth

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Despite injuries in the spring, this group is the deepest on the team.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Despite injuries to two of their three starters in Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, the Wisconsin Badgers’ inside linebackers did not skip a beat during the 2016 season and helped anchor one of the best Badgers defenses in recent memory with the help of Leon Jacobs and former walk-on Ryan Connelly.

Gone is defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who also coached this position group. Insert a familiar face in Bob Bostad, who will coach a defensive position for the first time in his coaching career. A former Division III standout linebacker, Bostad should give an already experienced group a new perspective as a former offensive line coach.

With no major contributors leaving, this crew is among the deepest on the team and should easily continue the positive trend it has developed since the 3-4 scheme was implemented in 2013.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Inside Linebackers

Inside Linebacker 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Inside Linebacker 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Chris Orr JR* 6'0 226 DeSoto, Texas
T.J. Edwards R-JR 6'1 246 Lake Villa, Ill.
Jack Cichy R-SR 6'2 233 Somerset, Wis.
Ryan Connelly R-JR 6'3 235 Eden Prairie, Minn.
Leon Jacobs R-SR 6'2 238 Santa Clarita, Calif.
Griffin Grady SO 6'3 218 Dublin, Ohio
Nick Thomas R-SO 6'2 222 Bradenton, Fla.
Tyler Johnson R-SO 6'3 244 Menasha, Wis.
Mason Stokke R-FR 6'2 222 Menomonie, Wis.
Mike Maskalunas R-FR 6'3 228 Long Grove, Ill.
Nikolas Ohuafi R-FR 6'1 201 De Pere, Wis.
Ethan Cesarz FR 6'1 220 Delavan, Wis.
Jake Collinsworth FR 6'1 225 Merrill, Wis.
*Orr is expected to be given a medical redshirt after he played only one snap in 2016. For now, we’re holding him as a junior until that officially happens.

2016 Leaders

T.J. Edwards: 89 tackles (lead team—48 solo, 41 assisted), 8.5 tackles for loss (second on team behind T.J. Watt), three sacks, three interceptions

Jack Cichy: 60 tackles in only seven games played, seven tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles

Ryan Connelly: 59 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one fumble recovery for a touchdown vs. Penn State in the Big Ten championship game

Key Departures

Dallas Jeanty (transfer)

Key Additions

Ethan Cesarz (walk-on), Jake Collinsworth (walk-on)

Position Overview

It’s good to have an embarrassment of riches at a position, as seen with this group last year. Honestly, this team currently has four, possibly five inside linebackers who could be NFL-caliber. Would-be junior Orr and redshirt senior Cichy were among a projected trio of starters who would contribute heavily to the defense last year but had their seasons cut short. Orr should be granted a medical hardship redshirt for suffering a right knee injury one snap into the season opener against LSU. It appears Orr is back doing drills, as seen from a tweet in late January.

Cichy, a former walk-on, could be set for a huge season starting in the fall in his final year as a Badger, as former UW outside linebacker Vince Biegel said the Somerset native provided an energy to the defense. Despite missing seven games, Cichy tied for fourth on the team in tackles and tied for third in tackles for loss. With Biegel, Watt and two senior starters on the secondary leaving the program, his high motor and play-making ability will be needed.

Both Cichy and Orr worked out in non-contact team and position drills during the first spring practice on March 14, though Chryst noted they won’t participate in much contact activities.

“Today, we were able to do quite a bit of work with them,” Chryst said. “There’s no contact. They won’t get a lot of contact this spring, but they can still get a number of periods or opportunities in the spring to get some work. Whenever we can get that, we’ll squeeze it in and it was good, just even today, just seeing them out there and running around with the group.”

Maybe the most under-the-radar contributor on the defense the past two seasons is Edwards, who led the team in tackles for a second consecutive year. He also tallied three interceptions in 2016, the last one helping Wisconsin add a fourth-quarter touchdown to essentially put away Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. He’s solid and reliable, and the former prep quarterback should have another season to make his mark on the defense.

Redshirt junior Ryan Connelly—another former walk-on—will likely be behind these three but showed he can not only start on a Division I-leading defense, but contribute heavily to its success.

He was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week after his 11 tackles (two for loss) against Nebraska in late October. He tied for third on the team in that latter category with seven. He showed the instinct to make big plays when needed—most notably his open-field tackle against LSU on a third-down screen pass that could have completely altered the outcome of the game, and his fumble recovery for a touchdown against Penn State in the Big Ten championship game. He’s proven to be an FBS starter and with both Cichy and Orr still recovering, expect him to contribute in some fashion this spring and into fall camp.

Both Edwards and Connelly will not participate in spring practices due to a foot and shoulder injury, respectively. The Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway noted on Tuesday that Edwards was seen with a walking boot on.

Jacobs, like Connelly, proved again to be a reliable player when thrust into action. The California native moved back to inside linebacker after the injuries at the position decimated the depth. He registered 11 tackles against Nebraska as well, showing he can step up.

Behind those five, it should be interesting to see how sophomores Nick Thomas and Griffin Grady progress throughout the spring. They could be buried on the depth chart, but Grady worked his way up to be a No. 2 inside linebacker last year despite being a true freshman (yes, that was due to the injuries). Thomas was a heralded recruit out of IMG Academy down in Bradenton, Fla., and could fight for some reps this season.

Like Grady, walk-on Tyler Johnson also moves inside from outside linebacker.