Flash back to the beginning of the 2016 Wisconsin football season.
The Badgers opened the season against No. 5, LSU, without their returning, leading tackler from the 2015 campaign. T.J. Edwards was held out of the game due to injury and the Badgers lost yet another promising player in Chris Orr on the first play from scrimmage.
About halfway through that season, Wisconsin lost Jack Cichy, who suffered a season-ending injury. Even without key pieces to the defense, the Badgers ranked fourth in the NCAA in scoring defense in 2016, allowing only 15.5 points per game.
Back to present day. No. 9 Wisconsin began the 2017 season in a similar but worse position with two players out for the season. Cichy, now a redshirt senior, was lost for the season when he tore his ACL on Aug. 8. The Badgers then lost sophomore Zack Baun for the season less than a week before their first game due to a foot injury.
Just like in 2016, other linebackers stepped up for the Badgers in their season-opening 59–10 win over Utah State.
Edwards, who led Wisconsin in tackles in both 2015 and 2016, kicked off his junior campaign with seven tackles (five solo, two assists), broke up two passes, and intercepted a pass late in the second quarter, leading to Wisconsin’s second score of the game.
Orr missed all of 2016 but registered seven tackles (four solo, three assists) in his first game back in cardinal and white. As a freshman, Orr finished fifth on the team with 46 tackles.
The linebacker corps was responsible for five of Wisconsin’s eight tackles for loss in the opener. Leon Jacobs registered two on his own. He recorded just one tackle for loss in 2016 playing behind Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt.
Garret Dooley, who burst onto the scene in 2016 after only playing in 11 games and registering three tackles the prior season, began his senior campaign with two tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. In 2016, Dooley recorded seven tackles in three separate games.
Edwards, Orr, Jacobs, and Dooley will be anchoring defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s defense. Apart from his starters, Leonard has a bevy of talented players to share the load of the reigning fourth-ranked scoring defense in the NCAA.
Junior Ryan Connelly, whom the Badgers turned to in the 2016 opener against LSU following Orr's injury, recorded seven tackles (four solo, three assists) against the Tigers. Connelly finished his sophomore season with 59 tackles. On Saturday, Connelly picked up three tackles (one solo, two assists) against the Aggies.
Junior Arrington Farrar, who spent his first two years in Madison at safety, made the move to linebacker in 2017 and debuted by assisting on four tackles. In his previous two seasons, Farrar registered 13 tackles in 26 games.
A new name burst onto the scene against the Aggies as well: Iowa Western transfer Andrew Van Ginkel, who registered four tackles (two solo, two assists) and leveled an Aggie, freeing safety Joe Ferguson for the remaining 45 yards of his 99-yard pick-six.
If Wisconsin suffers yet another injury in 2017, Leonhard will have several players to call upon to fill the void and stay with the “next man up” mentality Wisconsin is so used to embodying while battling adversity.