MADISON—Of course, one of the first topics reporters asked redshirt senior inside linebacker Chris Orr on Tuesday morning revolved around his weight change noted on the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 spring roster.
UW listed Orr, now in his fifth year in the program, at 214 pounds. That was down 18 pounds from the 232 the program designated him at for the 2018 season. One should note that Wisconsin’s staff updates its players’ weights on UWBadgers.com twice a year—once after winter conditioning before spring ball, and once after summer conditioning before fall camp begins.
Regardless, after Orr updated his diet and with some help from a key third phase of the game, the results show as he prepares to lead Wisconsin’s defense heading into the 2019 season.
“Basically just trying to eat healthier, increase my vegetable intake, lower my dairy intake, lower my red meats, and it kind of just started coming off,” Orr said on Tuesday after spring practice. “I was doing more special teams, running more, so it kind of just started coming off naturally but I wanted to do that because I want to stay as healthy as possible, last through a season, and I wanted to come more explosive and faster, so that was good. That was the main reason to be honest.”
The ends appeared to have justified the means.
“I feel way faster. Not as tired anymore,” Orr said. “My body doesn’t really get beat up too much anymore. I can recover faster so I definitely feel way faster than I was before, so definitely excited to put it to use.”
When asked if he was afraid of being too light now, Orr retorted that he became stronger and still has his strength even though he dropped the significant weight.
“Per se, a number on the scale doesn’t correlate to you getting moved around on the field or not,” Orr said, “but I definitely got stronger so I’m not worried about that at all, to be honest.”
Head coach Paul Chryst echoed the sentiment.
“I think that every player goes through kind of finding their sweet spot. I trust where he’s at,” Chryst told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “He feels good with it, and his weight room numbers are good so it’s not like it’s taking away from something. I think each guy has got to find that. As you get older, you figure it out.”
Gone are T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, both off to chase their professional football dreams with the hopes of being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft later this month. Orr and rising sophomore Jack Sanborn worked as the apparent first-team inside linebackers during Tuesday’s practice, the fourth overall for Wisconsin this spring and first session opened to the media.
Coming into his final season at UW with 36 games (16 starts) already under his belt, Orr will likely be counted upon to be a leader on a defense that has lost key starters from last year.
He played in all 13 games in 2018, including his one start coming in the Pinstripe Bowl win in place of the injured Connelly.
“In this game of football, I feel like I’m pretty much a natural leader,” Orr said, who recorded eight tackles, one for loss, and an interception in that December win against the Hurricanes inside Yankee Stadium. “I’m eager to have guys look to me when things may not be going well or whenever they need some energy. When they’re feeling down, I’m eager to have guys look to me and get a spark from me—just either talking to me or looking at me and looking at the work I’m putting in—so it’s definitely exciting for me.”
His leadership will likely serve on several layers of the team. First, with the departures of Edwards and Connelly, he becomes the elder statesman in coach Bob Bostad’s linebacker room. Sanborn enters his second year in Madison after playing in 11 games as a freshman, and though early, the former four-star recruit could be in line to start opposite Orr.
Behind them, redshirt junior Mike Maskalunas and true freshman Leo Chenal appeared to be the second set of linebackers in during the various practice periods on Tuesday. Wisconsin listed Chenal, who enrolled early at Wisconsin after a productive prep career, at 6’2 and 239 pounds.
The first thing Orr praised about Chenal, who also intercepted a Danny Vanden Boom pass during 7-on-7 drills on Tuesday, was his strength.
“Oh that boy’s strong, man. He’s strong.” Orr said. “He’s strong, but he’s definitely making some strides. I’m excited to see how he progresses from now all the way to fall camp and the season, so definitely impressive.”
Another new face is Seth Currens, who appeared to receive reps alongside Masklaunas at times on Tuesday. Joining the position group from safety, Orr believes the redshirt junior is fitting in.
“Kind of reminds me of a younger Jack, younger Jack Cichy,” Orr said. “Real skinny, kind of slipping everything, but he’s definitely fitting in well. It’s definitely exciting to have somebody like that back into the room bring a different toolset, different mindset to it, so I’m eager to see what he can do also for the rest of spring and through fall camp.”
When asked what Orr needed to provide for the young position group, Chryst pointed to two areas about his fifth-year ‘backer, including expanding that leadership beyond guiding the inside linebackers.
“Chris has got to continue to keep getting better as a player. There’s an individual component to it,” Chryst said. “He approached it that way. He’s always been that way, so that’s good.
“Then obviously, he’s a natural leader, and he has played a lot. Even though certainly Ryan and T.J. had a ton of starts but Chris is a natural leader, and what I’m impressed with is not just leading the defense. I think he’s doing a good job being a team leader, and so I think Chris has to be himself because those things are natural. But he can kind of set the tone in a lot of ways, and yet I think that’s right up his alley, so it’s good.”
Edwards, Connelly, safety D’Cota Dixon, outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu—all NFL prospects— also all departed the program after an 8-5 campaign in 2018. Before that, linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal and defensive linemen Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy left after the 2017 campaign that saw Wisconsin nearly reach the College Football Playoff.
Less experienced players will be called upon to step up in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit from seasons’ past, but when asked what he sees around that huddle, Orr acknowledged those “new faces” but also a “hunger.”
“A different type of hunger,” Orr said. “The guys that I played with before when I was younger, they were all there all the time. We were here, three years straight, four years straight, some guys, but it’s a different hunger. Guys are eager to play. Guys are eager to earn the trust of the team and the defense, so it’s definitely exciting without a doubt.”
As the old adage goes, time certain can fly by. Orr enters the 2019 season with 109 career tackles, six for loss, along with 2.5 sacks and two interceptions. One of those picks came on the road at Nebraska in 2017 that he returned 78 yards for a touchdown.
A reporter asked if it felt weird being the “old guy” now, and he admitted that it was while also reminiscing back to his first year in the program in 2015.
“My freshman year, I remember looking at guys like [safety Mike] Caputo and [quarterback Joel] Stave and being like, ‘Y’all old. Y’all are old.’ I’ll be like, ‘I’m not going to be here for five years.’”
Now heading into his fifth year, that youthful energy still has not left him.
“It’s kind of weird. Still feel like the young guy,” Orr said. “Been the youngest of four boys my whole life, so kind of the opposite end of that.”