You can never have enough depth in football. For the Wisconsin Badgers, that’s especially true at inside linebacker.
Last year, Wisconsin was two-deep with its sets of ‘backers, but the four starting-caliber players were needed to keep a top-10 defense rolling without a hitch. Season-ending injuries to Chris Orr and Jack Cichy in the first and seventh games forced Ryan Connelly to step up, and he responded alongside T.J. Edwards for the latter half of the 2016 season.
This year, a similar tune will be played. On Thursday, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst announced Cichy will miss the entire 2017 season due to a torn ACL suffered during Tuesday night’s practice.
It’s a significant blow to the defense under first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard. A former walk-on, Cichy earned not just a scholarship but also a starting spot and watch list accolades in years past, as well as the distinction of team captain by his peers. Vince Biegel, now with the Green Bay Packers and currently on an injury list himself, called his former teammate the energy to the defense last season when Cichy was lost for the year after the win at Iowa. There’s a passion, intelligence, and play-making ability to his game that made him a must-watch asset to this program.
Wisconsin’s video from when Cichy went down last year shows his toughness and what the defense misses when he’s sidelined.
The loss of Cichy cannot be understated for a defense looking to continue its progression to be among the nation’s elite in a year with potentially high expectations. Fortunately for Wisconsin, there is depth at inside linebacker with three other standout players who should fill the void created by his absence.
Cichy and Edwards worked alongside the first-team defense for the first week-and-a-half. Edwards led the team in tackles the past two seasons (84 in 2015, 89 in 2016) while also recording three interceptions last year and being named the defensive MVP in Wisconsin’s Cotton Bowl win.
In fall camp, Edwards has stood out already, making some interceptions in the first week.
“I think we’re really taking coaching well, whether it being from [defensive coordinator Jim] Leonhard or [inside linebackers coach Bob] Bostad,” Cichy said on Aug. 2 about Edwards. “We’re all kind of really taking it upon ourselves, and this camp is a lot more spread out. We got a lot more down time, so I think we’re using that all really to study up on concepts—not only just on plays, but just football concepts and offensive concepts—so we got to be better all-around players, so I think that’s really helped him.
“I think he’s had a couple that his interceptions have been rewarded because he’s in the right place, his technique’s good, and he’s really taken upon himself to learn just where and what to be.”
To replace Cichy, look to Orr and Connelly to pick up the slack. During Thursday’s practice, Orr worked with Edwards as part of the first-team defense. Orr has played in 11 games through two seasons (seven starts) and both years were cut short by injuries. He lost his 2016 season after one offensive play against LSU at Lambeau Field.
Orr is more than capable of picking up where Cichy left off, and the DeSoto, Texas, product brings a similar, vocal energy to the field.
Connelly jumped in for Orr during that LSU game—Edwards was also out that game—and filled in more than adequately. He did so as well when Cichy was lost against Iowa. That personifies the “glue in the foundation” persona that many walk-ons fill when called upon, though Connelly exceeded that in 2016. He earned co-Big Ten defensive player of the week honors against Nebraska and scored a touchdown against Penn State in the Big Ten title game.
Connelly has not participated in the past few practices due to a left leg injury. Chryst said on Thursday that the Badgers don’t know when he will return, though he noted it was “certainly not a season-type of injury.” It’s still very early in fall camp, but if the Eden Prairie, Minn., native gets healthy, he should be in the mix when he returns from the sidelines.
Connelly being on the shelf for the time being opens up second-team practice reps, making numerous players one more injury away from seeing time with the ones.
“I think those are those windows of opportunity for those guys,” Chryst said on Thursday when asked about players that may be asked to do more. “Arrington Farrar, who kind of made the switch halfway through the spring, maybe a little bit past halfway, so he has a chance to get reps. We’ve liked the way Mikey Maskalunas has come in and worked, so there’s more work for him. It’d be good to get Griffin [Grady] back. He’s kind of missing that, so those are three guys that kind of come off the top of your head that that’s good work for them, so they got to take advantage of that.”
During spring practice, all four—Cichy, Edwards, Orr, and Connelly—were all either limited or out. That allowed the likes of Maskalunas, a redshirt sophomore, and Grady, a sophomore, to gain key reps. They responded with impressive efforts during the 15 allotted practice sessions.
Edwards described Maskalunas on Tuesday night as “a really physical dude who comes to work everyday” and being fun to watch, and noted the second-year player’s experience with the first team in March and April.
Griffin has been limited at times this fall camp with an illness, and then there’s Farrar, a junior who moved to the second level of the defense as an inside linebacker after two years at safety. The former four-star recruit has already played in 26 games over his first two seasons in Madison
“Guys like Arrington’s coming along well,” Edwards said. “A guy who brings a lot of speed coming from safety, so he’s a really fast inside linebacker. He knows a lot of good route concepts coming from safety as well, so he’s grown a lot even from the spring until now.”
Picking up the slack from Cichy’s loss isn’t just on the shoulders of the inside linebackers, however. Wisconsin’s front seven has experience and talent on the defensive line and at outside linebacker, while the secondary should continue its positive progression from last season.
It’s tough to replace Cichy’s contributions both on and off the field, but there are pieces that can fit into Wisconsin’s defense to continue to make the unit a continued strength for this year’s team.