You could have forgiven Chris Orr if he had been just a little disappointed. A guy that’s started 15 games at inside linebacker, including eight last season, was poised to move into a full-time starting role if T.J. Edwards had bypassed his senior year and entered the NFL, as many expected him to do after a stellar junior campaign. Instead, in January, Edwards announced he’d be coming back for his final season.
“T.J. is one of my best friends here. I was happy to have him back,” Orr said in the spring, showing no signs of resentment. “The competition is just going to make me better, and we’re going to make each other better…I had a pretty good idea he was going to come back. I never really thought of it like, ‘Oh, this is my chance to be the guy.’ I’ve been playing almost every year, so I’m not really worried about that.”
The return of Edwards means that as opposed to have two experienced guys in Orr and senior Ryan Connelly, the Badgers will role with an inside linebacker group that is easily the deepest and most productive position on this year’s defense. The trio combined for 205 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, seven sacks, six interceptions and two touchdowns last season for a unit that was among the best in the nation.
But while there aren’t very many questions about the inside linebackers, there are plenty around them, where inexperience rules. The defensive line is replacing three seniors and is dealing with injuries. Only one experienced outside linebacker returns, while the secondary is also in the midst of replacing three starters. Edwards, though, doesn’t sound worried.
“No, none at all,” Edwards said when asked if he was concerned about the attrition. “I think it’s something that happens every year when everyone realizes people left and people start freaking out. When T.J. (Watt) and Vince (Biegel) left [after the 2016 season], it’s like, ‘We’re going to suck now.’ No, we replace every year. We’ve got guys that come in and work every single day that are ready for these moments.”
Edwards does understand, though, that because of what his group has done, there will be eyes on him and the other inside linebackers to help bring everyone else along. It’s what happens when you’re a Butkus Award finalist like Edwards, or an All-Big Ten player like Connelly or a proven playmaker like Orr.
“Just being a redshirt senior now, it’s my time to really take control of this defense with my voice,” Edwards said. “I think that’s something that is big for me, Connelly and Chris Orr, something that we have to really channel. Chris talks all day, so I’m sure he can do that in his sleep, but for me and Connelly, we really have to be more vocal with this team.”
What all three guys made clear this spring is that expectations don’t change even with all the losses. It’s not like Edwards returned solely because he wanted to improve his draft stock. Sure, that was part of it, but him, along with Orr and Connelly, have been a part of teams that have been so close to winning a conference title and making it to the College Football Playoff. So when he pushed off turning pro, Edwards did so with a mind towards redemption in Indianapolis and on reaching the ultimate goal of any college program.
“It’s national championship,” Edwards said of their highest ambition. “It’s easy to make those high, lofty goals right now, but there is so much that goes into that.
“Just being so hurt from those Big Ten Championship games, [I] can’t do it anymore.”
Biggest question: Who fills out the rotation?
With Edwards, Connelly and Orr, Wisconsin has three guys it can count on. But if recent history is any indication, others may be needed and the Badgers have some intriguing options to pick from.
The first is redshirt sophomore Griffin Grady. An illness last fall led to him redshirting after seeing the field in 12 games as a true freshman. He earned Wisconsin’s Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year honors and was back running with the second-team defense for much of the spring.
Another option will be redshirt sophomore Mike Maskalunas. He played in 13 games last year, mostly on special teams and in mop-up duty, finishing with 11 tackles.
A pair of true freshmen may also figure into things. Illinois product Jack Sanborn, a 4-star prospect, was the highest-rated member of Wisconsin’s 2018 recruiting class, while Waukesha Catholic Memorial’s C.J. Goetz, a 3-star recruit, is also expected to start his career at inside linebacker.
They said it
“I just had my sights set on running down on kickoff. That was my biggest hope. I was thinking, ‘I’ll just sit four years and then maybe my fifth year I can get in there and start.’ To have it happen the way it did is really a dream come true.”
— Connelly on going from an out-of-state walk-on to a multi-year starter for Wisconsin
Projected depth chart:
First team: T.J. Edwards (SR), Ryan Connelly (SR)
Second team: Chris Orr (JR), Griffin Grady (RS SO)
“The Camp” previews the ILBs