What the future holds: Inside linebacker

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

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Inside linebackers:

Returning: T.J. Edwards (SR), Ryan Connelly (SR), Chris Orr (JR), Arrington Farrar (SR), Griffin Grady (RS SO), Mike Maskalunas (RS SO), Nick Thomas (JR), Mason Stokke (RS SO)

Leaving: Jack Cichy

Arriving: Jack Sanborn (4-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Can the unit be better than it was in 2017?

Wisconsin has an embarrassment of riches at inside linebacker whereT.J. Edwards returns for his fourth year as a starter after putting his NFL aspirations on hold. All he’s done so far is rack up 254 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, five sacks and seven interceptions. In 2017, the former high school quarterback was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the best linebacker in the country.

Next to Edwards for much of the season was Ryan Connelly. For a second straight year, the Badgers called on the senior help them overcome a rash of injuries. He would end up leading the team in tackles (88), finish second in tackles for loss (11), record three sacks and provided the final dagger in the Orange Bowl with a late interception. The former walk-on earned All-Big Ten honorable mention from the coaches and the media.

And then there is Chris Orr, who bounced back after a season-ending injury at the start of 2016. Playing in 12 games, he ended up with 36 tackles, three tackles for loss an a pair of sacks.

Those three helped Wisconsin’s defense be one of the best in the nation. That it came after losing Jack Cichy, who very well could have been the Badgers best defensive player if not for tearing his left ACL prior to the season, was remarkable. But how can they get better in 2018?

Let’s start with Edwards. His task is pretty simple. Improve on what the NFL told him to — his speed. Despite all his success, the NFL’s draft advisory committee still had concerns about his ability to run and it was the biggest factor in advising him to return to school.

As for Connelly and Orr, it’s about taking what they did in 2017 and making it more consistent, according to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

“You need Chris Orr to continue to grow and develop,” Leonhard said in the days before the Orange Bowl last month. “He’s made big plays for us. He’s a communicator. He’s a leader for us. Just have to take the next step with him.

“Ryan Connelly, the same way. You saw from (2016) him having the ability to make plays and then (2017) just the consistency with which he’s made plays (was great). You hope he takes that to the next step and continues to gain confidence.”

Other notes:

It’s not a matter of if injuries hit the position but when. So it’ll be important for inside linebacker coach Bob Bostad and Leonhard to find a fourth and fifth guy they can count on.

The first option there is senior Arrington Farrar. He’s still learning the ropes to an extent after moving from safety to linebacker in the spring of 2017, but Leonhard liked what he saw in limited action.

The Badgers will get Griffin Grady back at full strength. After playing as a true freshman in 2016, Grady redshirted last year after an illness limited him in fall camp. He went on to be named the co-scout team player of the year on defense.

Redshirt sophomore Mike Maskalunas was a constant on special teams and will fight Farrar and Grady for playing time.

Incoming freshman Jack Sanborn is the highest rated recruit in Wisconsin’s 2018 class. There doesn’t appear to be a ton of playing time available, but he could always force his way onto the field like Grady did in his first year.

Predicted spring depth chart:

ILB: T.J. Edwards (SR), Chris Orr (JR)
ILB: Ryan Connelly (SR), Arrington Farrar (SR)

What the future holds:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line

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