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2018 Wisconsin inside linebackers preview: Big three return at deep position

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These guys are gonna be good. Again.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Wisconsin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

With questions regarding who will step up in Jim Leonhard’s top-five defense heading into the 2018 season, at least one position group has the combination of experience and depth to help bridge the transition to this year’s team, which needs to replace seven of 11 starters from a year ago.

That would be the inside linebackers, led by an All-American and two other starting-caliber standouts.

Though Jack Cichy’s presence will be missed as a team captain, T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, and Chris Orr should once again solidify a major part of Wisconsin’s front seven under the direction of Bob Bostad.

Wisconsin’s 2018 Inside Linebackers

2018 Spring ILB 2018 Projected Eligibility
2018 Spring ILB 2018 Projected Eligibility
T.J. Edwards R-SR
Ryan Connelly R-SR
Chris Orr R-JR
Mike Maskalunas R-SO
Griffin Grady R-SO
Mason Stokke R-SO
Ethan Cesarz R-FR

*Note: We have updated the article to include the 2018 spring roster that was officially released on March 12, with Arrington Farrar confirmed to move out to outside linebacker, Jake Collinsworth to fullback, and Nick Thomas not on the roster as first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway. On Tuesday, Wisconsin announced Mason Stokke would not participate in spring practice.

2017 Leaders

Ryan Connelly (88 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception)
T.J. Edwards (81 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four interceptions, one pick-six, two sacks, seven pass break-ups)
Chris Orr (36 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, one 78-yard pick-six)

Who’s Leaving

Jack Cichy

Early Enrollees

None

Key Additions

Jack Sanborn
John Chenal (walk-on)

Position Overview

The return of Edwards, an All-American and first-team All-Big Ten selection, is huge for the Wisconsin defense. The leadership and playmaking ability of the will-be redshirt senior—who was second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss while tying for the lead in interceptions—can help stabilize a defense losing so many players.

Bucky’s 5th Podcast, Ep. 9: Our TE/FB/ILB previews, plus an interview with 2019 commit Bryson Shaw

Connelly again stepped up in 2017 as he did in 2016, leading the team in tackles while tying for second in tackles for loss with Edwards. Barring injuries, the former walk-on again will be a pillar in the middle of the defense.

Two inside linebackers returned interceptions for touchdowns last season. Edwards’s 54-yard pick-six against Maryland set the tone in a 38–13 win, while Orr’s 78-yard return for a score at Nebraska allowed Wisconsin to never trail in a rough road atmosphere in Lincoln. Orr worked back from missing all but one play of the 2016 season, playing in 12 games last year with eight starts.

How much work these three receive this spring will be something to watch, especially considering the status those behind them.

If Farrar does transition to his third position in three years, that leaves Maskalunas and Grady in contention for key back-up positions. Both received plenty of reps last spring with Cichy, Edwards, Connelly, and Orr all either limited or out for those 15 practices. B5Q acknowledged their positive performances last April. Maskalunas later played in 13 games during the season.

Four-star signee Jack Sanborn will not arrive in Madison until summer conditioning, but the position group is filled out by Mason Stokke, who was out last year due to a right leg injury, and walk-on Ethan Cesarz—that is, if the roster moves for Thomas and Collinsworth are confirmed next week.