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Despite spring injuries, Wisconsin’s inside linebackers will be special in 2017

The position group should (again) excel this season.

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

The Wisconsin Badgers boasted depth at inside linebacker last year, but they needed it with season-ending injuries to Chris Orr (knee) and Jack Cichy (pectoral).

Heading into 2017, both impact players should find their way back on to the field. Along with redshirt juniors T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly—and new position coach Bob Bostad, who boomeranged back to UW after stays in the NFL and Northern Illinois—this group should be a force opposing offenses will have to prepare for and contain.

Throw in some second year players who received significant reps during the spring with all four aforementioned Badgers limited or out, and the embarrassment of riches continues for Wisconsin’s backers.

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.
Griffin Grady SO 6'3 218 Dublin, Ohio
Mike Maskalunas R-FR 6'3 228 Long Grove, Ill.
Arrington Farrar JR 6'2 225 Atlanta, Ga.
Nick Thomas R-SO 6'2 222 Bradenton, Fla.
Mason Stokke R-FR 6'2 222 Menomonie, Wis.
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, injured last year after LSU’s first offensive play in the season-opening win at Lambeau Field, worked on a limited basis during the spring in what appeared to be non-contact drills. Speaking earlier this week with ESPN Madison at Lake Wisconsin, Chryst confirmed the DeSoto, Texas, product should be ready for UW’s season-opener against Utah State on Sept. 1.

Cichy injured his pectoral muscle during Wisconsin’s hard fought 17-9 win at Iowa on Oct. 22. Describe by former outside linebacker Vince Biegel as the “energy to our defense,” the former walk-on was such a presence last season before his ailment that he still finished tied for third in tackles for loss (seven) and fourth in total tackles (60).

Telling the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway that he could have played in a game this spring if needed, it’s a welcome sign for the redshirt senior who’s already on the 2017 Watt IMPACT Trophy Watch List.

Perhaps the most underrated of all the position group, Edwards has quietly led the team in tackles the past two seasons (84 and 89 tackles in 2015 and 2016, respectively). His 10-tackle performance—including an interception deep in Western Michigan territory in the fourth quarter—earned him defensive MVP honors in UW’s 2017 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win. He was out during the spring with a foot injury.

Also not participating in spring practices in March and April was Connelly (shoulder), who like many walk-ons before him became the glue to hold the pieces in place at the position group. With both Orr and Cichy gone for extended parts of the season, he finished the year with 59 tackles, seven for loss—including key plays against LSU, Nebraska and Penn State.

And according to Pro Football Focus, not one returning collegiate inside linebacker bettered him in run stop percentage.

There’s a lot of talent with the two-deep of this position group, but the injuries during the spring also opened up opportunities.

“I think if you’re talking about the inside linebackers, I think it’s been really good for [redshirt freshman] Mike Maskalunas and [sophomore] Grif Grady,” head coach Paul Chryst said the Monday before UW’s spring game, when asked which younger players have stepped up. “He’s gotten a lot of work. Heck the other day, [redshirt freshmen] Noah Burks was getting quite a bit.”

Griffin Grady worked his way into the two-deep at inside linebacker with the injuries last year and played in 12 games. Both Grady and Maskalunas held their own during the spring and will only benefit them with Cichy graduating next year.

“I see a lot of grit. They’re young, they’re not scared to go in there and make a big hit or whatever,” free safety Natrell Jamerson said of the young duo after the spring game. “They’re learning, still learning, but they’re pretty good. I got a lot of confidence in them.”

Behind them, Nick Thomas suffered a knee injury in the spring but Chryst mentioned he should return for summer workouts. How junior Arrington Farrar transitions to inside linebacker should be intriguing for years to come, especially with the talent that led him to find some time on the field in his first two years of eligibility.