Assessing the inside linebackers in the wake of Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury

MADISON — Jack Cichy is done for the year after tearing the ACL in his right knee Tuesday night at practice. And for the second time in 10 months, Wisconsin players and coaches are having to field questions about where they go from here now that they don’t have their fiery and talented inside linebacker. The choices, like they were last October when Cichy tore his left pectoral muscle and missed the second half of the season, are far better than most teams in the country could hope for in a similar situation.

Here’s our look at who has a chance to roll with the first-team defense next to to three-year starter T.J. Edwards and attempt to fill the massive void left by Cichy

Junior Ryan Connelly (2016: 59 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 1 interception)

Connelly started the final seven games of last season after Cichy went down and filled in admirably. A former walk-on just like Cichy, Connelly, according to PFF College Football, had the No. 1 run stop percentage among all returning inside linebackers in the country. He would likely be a heavy favorite to be Cichy’s replacement once again, but he’s currently dealing with a leg injury of his own that has kept him out of practice for the last week. Coach Paul Chryst said the injury isn’t season-ending, but he also gave no indication when the Minnesota native would be able to return.

Sophomore Chris Orr (2016: Torn ACL on first snap. 2015: 46 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, .5 sack)

Orr started five games as a true freshman in 2015 before tearing his left ACL on the first snap of 2016. He’s now fully recovered and was running with the first-team defense on Thursday morning. Orr is not the biggest guy, but being relentless and instinctive are two of his better traits. Depending on how long Connelly remains out, Orr very well could grab ahold of the job and not let go.

Sophomore Griffin Grady (2016: 12 games, 4 tackles)

One of just six true freshmen to see the field for Wisconsin in 2016, Grady was a fixture on special teams and looked solid in mop-up time at inside linebacker. Unfortunately for him and the Badgers, the Dublin, Ohio., product has missed most of fall camp with an illness, preventing him from getting vital reps.

Junior Arrington Farrar (2016: 7 tackles, 1 forced fumble)

A safety his first two years on campus, Farrar moved to inside linebacker during spring practice for Wisconsin. The change allowed him to bulk up as opposed to constantly worrying about keeping his weight down to play in the secondary. One of Wisconsin’s key guys on special teams, Farrar admitted in the spring that redshirting in 2017 was a possibility with all the talent in front of him. That might not be the case now that Cichy’s season is over.

Redshirt freshman Mike Maskalunas (2016: redshirt)

From Long Grove, Ill., Maskalunas has the chance to be the next walk-on to hit it big at linebacker, joining the likes of Joe Schobert, Marcus Trotter, Ethan Armstrong, Cichy and Connelly. Asked what young guy stood out to him during the summer, tight end Troy Fumagalli singled out Maskalunas.

“He’s a hard worker, puts his head down, does the right things,” Fumagalli said on ‘The Camp.’ “He’s got a bunch of talent in front of him. You might not see him right away. People might speculate [about his future]. But if he keeps on the same path of working hard and follows those guys in front of him, I think he’s going to be a really good player one day.”

Like he did with Barry Alvarez, former coach Lou Holtz made an impression on the current Badgers

MADISON — Lou Holtz has been one of the biggest professional influences in Barry Alvarez’s life. The Hall of Fame coach hired Alvarez to oversee the linebackers at Notre Dame in 1987 and then had him run his defense the two years after that. The lessons learned and the advice gained during that short time together stayed with Alvarez during his 16 years as the head coach at Wisconsin and his 14 years as the school’s athletic director. So when Alvarez offered to have Holtz come speak to this year’s team, current coach Paul Chryst was receptive to the idea.

“Certainly there’s a lot of the philosophical foundational pieces that Coach Alvarez got from him, and I certainly have gotten from Coach Alvarez,” Chryst said of the points hammered home by Holtz. “The game is a vehicle we can use to teach and help these young guys grow. It was a good message.”

A majority of the players these days know Holtz more for his time on TV than as the coach of six different college programs, including his 11 years with the Fighting Irish where he led the program to its 11th national title in 1988. Yet, despite the nearly 60-year age difference between Holtz and most of the Badgers, his message to them of knowing their role on the team, and the need to embrace it, hit home with several players.

LISTEN: CB Derrick Tindal says it’s time the UW secondary gets some respect.

“Don’t be the guy that [doesn’t] accept your role,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said of what stood out to him. “Everybody can’t be a superstar. Everybody can’t be a starter. If your job is on special teams, and we need you to block, do that to the best of your ability.

“You think I like going out there to block on punt return sometimes? [No.] But I’m going to do whatever to help the team. I don’t care if it’s punt return, kickoff, kick return. They can put me on the front line if they want to. If they feel like that’s what is going to help the team, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I thought [coach] Holtz did a good job of [getting that message across].”

In recent years, injuries have forced Wisconsin to adapt on the fly and go deep into its roster to find replacements. And it’s worked well because players haven’t fallen into the trap of just going through the motions when they know they’ll likely be back on the bench when the first-team player returns. Instead, they’ve seen an opportunity and pounced on it, sometimes with stellar results.

LISTEN: UW coach Paul Chryst says the backup QBs are still very early in their development.

It was that type of work that led to the rise of linebackers Jack Cichy, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly in the last two seasons, while also giving wide receiver Jazz Peavy the break he needed when guys at his position went down. Wisconsin’s football history is littered with similar examples.

“Embracing your role on this team and never being content with anything that you’re doing,” Orr said of his biggest takeaway from Holtz’s speech. “I think that was a good message for young guys and old guys [to hear].”

For nose guard Garrett Rand, whose high school coach played for Holtz at Notre Dame, the overriding theme was to focus on holding up his end of the bargain and expect his teammates to do the same.

“Even for the guys that aren’t playing as much, do your job,” Rand said. “[If you do] your job, everything else will be fine.”

Wisconsin LB Chris Orr receives medical redshirt

MADISON — Wisconsin is focused on the 2017 season, but the school got some good news for its future on Wednesday.

Team officials said linebacker Chris Orr, who was injured at the beginning of last season, got his medical redshirt approved by the NCAA. Though it was thought to be a foregone conclusion he would receive the year, the paperwork makes it official, and it leaves him a redshirt sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.

Orr started six games a freshman in 2015 and was in the lineup at the beginning of 2016 against LSU when his knee buckled on the first defensive snap of the year. It proved to be a torn ACL and kept him out the rest of the season and all of spring practice. Orr returned to the field this week when the team opened fall camp and hasn’t been restricted at all outside of having to wear a knee brace.

The Texas native is currently playing with the second-team defense at inside linebacker behind senior Jack Cichy and junior T.J. Edwards.

Wisconsin opens the season Sept. 1 against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin loses inside linebacker Chris Orr for the rest of the year

MADISON | Wisconsin will not have the services of inside linebacker Chris Orr for the rest of the season.

The sophomore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the first play of the game against LSU.

Orr played in 10 games as a freshman, including six starts, finishing with 46 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss.

Redshirt sophomore Ryan Connelly replaced Orr against the Tigers, and finished with seven tackles, the second-most on the team.

Sophomore T.J. Edwards, who was the team’s leading tackler last season but missed the opener with a foot injury, is listed as questionable for Saturday’s contest against Akron.

Wisconsin football preview: Linebackers

MADISON | The Wisconsin football team will open fall camp on Aug. 8, so over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to preview head coach Paul Chryst’s second team in Madison.

Today we take a look at the linebackers.

Linebackers

It’s rare when you can lose an All-American like Joe Schobert and not be worried about a potential drop-off in play. But that’s exactly the feeling around the Wisconsin football program as their group of linebackers enters the post-Schobert era. Instead of losing sleep over the departure of the reigning Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, there are many that feel the unit can be stronger this season than it was a year ago.

It starts with outside linebacker Vince Biegel. The boisterous and productive senior decided to return for his final season in Madison and does so with a major chip on his shoulder. After finishing with eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season, Biegel was named a consensus third-team All-Big Ten selection. He took it as a slight, so now, having moved into the spot occupied by Schobert last year, he’s aiming to prove he’s a better player than given credit for, and in turn, help his NFL stock. The Wisconsin native has also taken a major leadership role, something he’s attacked seriously both on and off the field.

The guy on the other side of Biegel – T.J. Watt — is why many aren’t expecting a big dip in play among the linebackers. Few have generated as much excitement before becoming a starter than Watt. Injuries kept the junior off the field his first few seasons, but in the first year since moving from tight end to outside linebacker, Watt showed glimpses of play-making ability, including having a role in three of the five turnovers the Badgers forced in their game against Minnesota last November. He continued to show those glimpses in the spring and could be poised for a breakout season.

Junior Garrett Dooley and redshirt freshman Zack Baun should fill-in behind those two.

Wisconsin is also loaded with experience and talent at inside linebacker. The biggest question there is how long T.J. Edwards will be out. The redshirt sophomore led the team in tackles a year ago with 84 and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention pick, but he suffered a foot injury during the summer and is out indefinitely. It’s possible he could miss the first game of the year against LSU.

If that ends up happening, junior Jack Cichy and sophomore Chris Orr would man the inside spots. All that pair did last year was combine for 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, with Cichy earning Defensive Player of the Game honors in the Holiday Bowl.

Depth chart projection:

Outside linebacker: 1) Vince Biegel, Senior 2) Garrett Dooley, RS Junior
Inside linebacker: 1) T.J. Edwards, RS Sophomore 2) Ryan Connelly, RS Sophomore
Inside linebacker: 1) Jack Cichy, RS Junior 2) Chris Orr, Sophomore
Outside linebacker: 1) T.J. Watt, RS Junior 2) Zack Baun, RS Freshman

Monday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
Tuesday: Offensive line, tight ends
Wednesday: Defensive line
Today: Linebackers

Report: Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards out indefinitely with a foot injury

MADISON | Even before they open fall camp, the Wisconsin football team may have already suffered what could potentially be a significant hit to their defense.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that inside linebacker T.J. Edwards is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

The sophomore was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last season, starting all 13 games and leading a Wisconsin defense that finished first in the nation in points allowed (13.7 points per game) and second in total defense (268.5 yards per game).

Despite Edwards’ value to the defense, if there was any position Wisconsin could afford a loss it would be at inside linebacker where they have depth and experience.

Sophomore Chris Orr started six games a year ago and finished with 46 tackles, while junior Jack Cichy came on to start four games and ended up with 60 tackles, eight tackles for loss and five sacks, including three on back-to-back-back plays against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Wisconsin opens the season on Sept. 3 against LSU at Lambeau Field.