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Inside linebackers a strength for Wisconsin despite defensive changes

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This might be one of the best units in the country.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst all the changes and attrition on the Wisconsin Badgers defense this season, one position group comes back with a combination of experience, leadership, and talent.

At inside linebacker, an All-American returns for his final season, as do a former walk-on who may be one of the most underrated athletes on the unit and a redshirt junior with football in his blood (and the play to back it up). Together, they should form the most consistent unit on Jim Leonhard’s defense for 2018.

Wisconsin’s 2018 Inside Linebackers

Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
T.J. Edwards 6'1 242 R-SR Lake Villa, Ill. Lakes Community
Ryan Connelly 6'3 237 R-SR Eden Prairie, Minn. Eden Prairie
Chris Orr 6'0 232 R-JR DeSoto, Tex. DeSoto
Mike Maskalunas 6'3 229 R-SO Long Grove, Ill. Adlai E. Stevenson
Griffin Grady 6'3 214 R-SO Dublin, Ohio Coffman
Mason Stokke 6'2 225 R-SO Menomonie, Wis. Menomonie
Ethan Cesarz 6'0 231 R-FR Delavan, Wis. Delavan-Darien
Jack Sanborn 6'2 228 FR Deer Park Ill. Lake Zurich
C.J. Goetz 6'3 238 FR Muskego, Wis. Catholic Memorial (Waukesha)
Jacob Heyroth 6'0 204 FR Lodi, Wis. Lodi

While questions swirl around the defensive line, outside linebacker opposite Andrew Van Ginkel, and who replaces three starters in the secondary, all three starting-caliber inside linebackers return. Of course, there have been injuries to this group, as Jack Cichy and others lost time to season-ending ailments over past couple of seasons.

Redshirt seniors T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, both Butkus Award watch list nominees, make up the best starting inside linebacker combo in the Big Ten and possibly the nation.

Let’s start with Edwards, whose return provides another pillar of leadership for this younger and admittedly less experienced defensive unit. The Illinois native recorded 81 tackles, 11 for loss, seven pass break-ups, four interceptions, and two sacks last season. That performance allowed him to claim first-team All-Big Ten honors plus three first-team All-America selections (AP, ESPN, USA Today) on the way to being a Butkus Award finalist.

Pairing next to him is Connelly, one of the most underrated linebackers in terms of athleticism. The former walk-on led the team in tackles (88) and tied Edwards for second in tackles for loss (11) along with wrapping up opposing quarterbacks on three sacks last year. Playing all 14 games last season with six starts, the Eden Prairie, Minn., native has emerged as one of the most reliable players on the defense, and this year should be no different entering his final year in Madison.

For all the praise Edwards and Connelly receive, redshirt junior Chris Orr provides the position group the ability to rotate in a game-ready player who won’t allow the unit to drop in quality. His time at Wisconsin has been well-chronicled, from starting as a freshman to his season-ending injury during the 2016 opener against LSU to him recovering and rebounding last year. Orr played in 12 games last season, contributing 36 tackles, three for loss, two sacks, and that 78-yard interception return for a touchdown against Nebraska. The DeSoto, Texas, native and NFL legacy will see time this season at the position, again, barring injury or unforeseen circumstance.

Behind those three game-ready and game-proven linebackers, walk-on Mike Maskalunas appeared to step in as part of the two-deep this spring as Arrington Farrar bumped to outside linebacker (after getting a lot of first-team reps the spring prior with injuries to the position group).

In 13 games last year, Maskalunas recorded 11 tackles, including one for loss.

Third-year player Griffin Grady redshirted last season but picked up co-defensive scout team player of the year honors alongside safety Scott Nelson.

Among the other returners are Ethan Cesarz and Mason Stokke. A walk-on, Cesarz redshirted his first year in the program, while Menomonee product Stokke will enter his third year in Madison after missing all of last year due to a right leg injury.

With the class of 2019, true freshmen Jack Sanborn, C.J. Goetz, and Jacob Heyroth join position coach Bob Bostad’s group. A first-team all-state selection for both his junior and senior years by the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association, Sanborn is a four-star product from Lake Zurich, Ill., who racked up 120 tackles and three sacks his senior year on way to the Class 7A state championship game.

Similar to Sanborn, Goetz claimed first-team all-state honors from the AP and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) during both his junior and senior prep seasons. Last year alone, the Catholic Memorial product recorded 150 tackles, 26 for loss, along with nine sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions.

Heyroth, another in-state product from Lodi, was a late addition to the class.