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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s 2019 inside linebackers

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The Badgers will finally have new faces at the position.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

If you’ve watched the Wisconsin Badgers over the past three-to-four years, two mainstays on defense have been inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. Two of the most talented linebackers in the country, both were unheralded recruits, but both made the most of their careers in Madison.

For that matter, both are now headed to the professional ranks. However, those two voids will be big shoes to fill in the inside linebacker room. Enter: Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn (probably).

A rising redshirt senior from DeSoto, Texas, Orr has been a consummate teammate, as he’s seen starting roles before (multiple games in 2015, the first play of the 2016 season versus LSU, and multiple games again in 2017), but has been overshadowed throughout his career by the likes of Edwards, Connelly and former walk-on turned Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jack Cichy.

Orr isn’t as big as Edwards or as athletic as Connelly or Cichy, but he is always in the right spot and has proven to be opportunistic when the moment presents itself creating turnovers (see: most recently, the eight-tackle, one TFL, one interception during the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl in replacing Connelly). He will be a steadying presence in the inside linebacker room, which will, for the first time in a few years, be a youthful position group.

The second starting inside linebacker is where some speculation will begin. Sanborn played a lot of special teams as a true freshman in 11 games, and in my opinion is the most dynamic athlete and has the most potential at the position as it stands right now. Rising redshirt juniors Griffin Grady and Mike Maskalunas, and potentially true freshman Leo Chenal, could also contend for playing time.

2018 statistical leaders

  • Redshirt senior T.J. Edwards: 113 tackles (led team), 11.5 tackles for loss (led team), three sacks, three interceptions (led team)
  • Redshirt senior Ryan Connelly: 89 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, six quarterback hurries

Expectation No. 1: Chris Orr is the next Badger linebacker to play in the NFL

Now, I don’t expect Orr to be a high-profile NFL prospect or anything along those lines, but since he enrolled in Madison as a true freshman in 2015, he has seen teammates Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt, Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs, Cichy and soon to be Edwards and Connelly make their way to the professional ranks.

Count those eight linebackers to the NFL in four years—that’s impressive. While again, Orr will not be the sexiest from a traits standpoint, he has shown the aptitude to be productive when given the opportunity. Also, having a former All-Pro linebacker as an older brother—Zach Orr, who played three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens—as a sounding board and mentor is not a bad spot to be in either.

Expectation No. 2: Jack Sanborn will establish himself as the best linebacker on the roster by the end of 2019.

Sanborn simply has traits that no other linebacker, inside or outside for that matter, on the roster right now has. The former four-star recruit from Deer Park, Ill. (Lake Zurich), native flashed in his limited base defensive reps last season, but his dynamic athleticism will help him tread water as he continues to develop as a Division I starting linebacker.

At least from a recruiting standpoint, the Badgers have been been making chicken salad out of chicken shit in terms of who has played at inside linebacker for some time now. 247Sports composite rankings designated Orr and Edwards as lower three-star and two-star recruits, respectively, while Connelly and Cichy were walk-ons. We will see what comes of Sanborn and his development.