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.

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

Grading the Badgers: Linebackers

During the 2017 season Wisconsin’s defense allowed only 92.6 yards per game. A big reason for that was the play of the linebackers.

The position group received contributions from numerous players this season. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley, and Leon Jacobs were the leaders while Chris Orr and Andrew Van Ginkel all contributed when their numbers were called. Edwards, Dooley, Connelly, and Jacobs all received some type of All-Big Ten recognition, with Edwards being recognized as an All-American as well.

Connelly was the team leader in tackles with 80 in total, as well as 3.0 sacks. Edwards was behind him with 75 stops, 2.0 sacks, and also was tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including one of them returned for a touchdown. He added in seven passes defended as well.

Jacobs, Dooley, and Van Ginkel were behind those two in terms of tackles, but were able to find the quarterback more often. The trio combined for 15 sacks on the season, including a team high 6.0 from Dooley. Orr also was able to find the quarterback for sacks on three occasions, despite missing four games on the season.

All of the honors that this group received were well deserved. The 92.6 yards rushing per game allowed was the lowest among FBS schools in the country. Wisconsin allowed 3.0 yards per carry as well, which ranked tied for sixth.

Linebackers are often thought of as the leaders of the defense, and it’s hard to argue that with this group. The Badgers got fantastic play from this group all year, no matter which players were in.

The game against Ohio State is obviously the black eye on this group, as it was the entire defense. Even in that game, the linebackers made their fair share of plays, including Van Ginkel’s interception of J.T. Barrett returned for a touchdown. Van Ginkel also forced and recovered a fumble deep inside Ohio State territory that the Badgers turned into a field goal.

GRADE: A – This group was the biggest reason as to why Wisconsin had the best statistical defense in the country. Allowing under 100 yards per game rushing is something that doesn’t happen by accident. Edwards was more than deserving of his All-American honors and will likely be selected in next spring’s NFL Draft if he decides to forego his eligibility.

Wisconsin’s linebackers were arguably the best position group on the team in 2017, and are more than deserving of their ‘A’ grade.

(5) Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 0: 2-minute drill

MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time since 1912, the Wisconsin Badgers finished a regular season undefeated.

The No. 5 Badgers got three touchdown passes from Alex Hornibrook and 149 yards rushing from Jonathan Taylor in a 31-0 win over Minnesota to move to 12-0 and extend their winning streak over their rivals to 14 games.

Play of the Game

All season Wisconsin has run the fullback dive in short yardage situations. On Saturday, faced with a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Badgers went against their tendency, calling for a play-action pass. It worked perfectly, as Hornibrook found tight end Troy Fumagalli for the first points of the day. Wisconsin didn’t look back on its way to a shutout victory.

Game Balls

Offense: Alex Hornibrook

In what was easily his best effort of the Big Ten season, the sophomore completed 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards and the three scores. A number of his throws, including a 5-yard touchdown to Danny Davis in the third quarter, were absolute darts, put in places that only his receivers had a chance. Perhaps most importantly, Hornibrook didn’t turn the ball over for the first time in eight games.

It was the type of effort that had several teammates talking about the team’s potential when he plays like that.

“When your offense is clicking and going, especially the way we play defense, there’s no stopping us, I feel like,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said.

Defense: Ryan Connelly

A Minnesota native that wasn’t recruited by the Gophers, Connelly was all over the place on Saturday. He finished with six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.

Connelly often gets overlooked among Wisconsin’s inside linebackers, but he’s been fantastic in a staring role of late. He’s the team’s leading tackler, and like he did last year, has more than filled the injury void left by Jack Cichy and Chris Orr.

Special Teams: Rafael Gaglianone

Gaglianone moved to 12 of 14 on the year with his 32-yard field goal in the second quarter. He’s also remained perfect on extra points for the season after hitting all four on Saturday.

In their own words

Did you think 12-0 was a possibility:

TE Troy Fumagalli: “I did, but I didn’t think too much about it. I tried not to focus too much on that and not the season. With the experience we had coming back, with the players in the locker room, I thought this was possible.”

LB T.J. Edwards: “Oh, yeah. 100 percent. I know that if we come out and play our best game we can hang with anyone in the country.”

CB Derrick Tindal: “I been telling you that [since the start of the season]. I trusted my teammates, trusted by boys and feel like they are going to keep it going.”

Is Wisconsin a win away from making the College Football Playoff?

WR Kendric Pryor: “We have to focus on playing Ohio State next. After that, we can’t control [the way] the committee votes. We just go out there and just play ball. If they decide to put us in, they do. If they don’t, they don’t.”

When did you know the game was in the bag?

Tindal: “When the first quarter started. I felt confident before the game. I knew we were going to win.”

In Case You Missed It

— Tight end Zander Neuville left with a knee injury in the first quarter, while running back Bradrick Shaw left in the second quarter with a leg injury. Coach Paul Chryst didn’t have an update on either guy after the game.

— Fullback Austin Ramesh took a sweep for a 41-yard gain in the second quarter. It was the longest rush of his career.

— After being forced to miss four games with a leg injury earlier this year, running back Chris James got his first extended action and finished with 51 yards on seven carries.

— Saturday was the first time since 1922 that Wisconsin has shutout Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Inside the Numbers

13 — That’s the number of wins in a row Wisconsin has, the longest streak in the country

1 — That’s the number of Power 5 teams in the country that are unbeaten. Wisconsin is that one team.

1,806 — That’s the number of yards Jonathan Taylor has run for this year. It’s the third-most in FBS history for a freshman.

What’s Next

Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0) will head to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis next Saturday to take on Ohio State (10-2, 8-1).

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.”

Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17 (OT): 2-minute drill

Game Balls

Offense: Dare Ogunbowale

Saturday night belonged to the senior running back. He carried the ball just 11 times but ran for a season-high 120 yards, the fourth time he’s topped the century mark in his career, with half of them coming against Nebraska.

Showing patience and some elite quickness, Ogunbowale sliced through the Huskers defense time after time, doing most of his damage on draws, exploiting an aggressive front seven. On his final carry of the night, he followed left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and center Michael Deiter around the edge of the Nebraska defense for an 11-yard touchdown that proved to be the winning score.

Defense: Ryan Connelly, Leon Jacobs

Tasked with trying to replace Jack Cichy, the heart and soul of the defense, the two inside linebackers flew all over the field, finishing with a combined 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and a couple pass break-ups. They weren’t without their flaws — outside linebacker Vince Biegel says they had some communication issues — but put in a difficult situation they played at a very high level.

Special Teams: Corey Clement

It what wasn’t a banner night for the special teams, Clement’s 24-yard punt return in the first quarter stands out. The senior was able to shake off some would-be tacklers and set the offense up with great field position at their own 49-yard line. Two plays later the Badgers were in the end zone to take an early 7-0 lead.

Tweets of the Night

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Video of the Night

Quote of the Day

“There was a sense of calm and confidence that (we) had coming out there.

“We were not going to let another close one — (an) overtime night game — slip by our fingers again.”

Linebacker Vince Biegel on the defense’s mentality as they took the field in overtime with a 6-point lead

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone joined Nebraska kicker Drew Brown and the rest of the Huskers specialists for their pregame ritual of carrying the late Sam Foltz’s jersey to the sideline. Foltz, a punter at Nebraska, was killed, along with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, in a car accident in Wisconsin back in July.

— Redshirt freshman David Edwards, a converted tight end, made his first career start at right tackle in place of the injured Jake Maxwell.

— Cornerback Natrell Jamerson missed his sixth straight game as a result of a leg injury. However, the junior did take part in warm-ups and could be close to returning.

— Former Wisconsin defensive lineman Tim Krumrie was honored during the game for his enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame. Krumrie led Wisconsin in tackles in all four years he played, and was named All-Big Ten three times.

— Wisconsin used two different quarterbacks for a second straight week. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook got the start, but senior Bart Houston played significant reps and was in the game on the Badgers score in overtime. The two combined to 14 of 23 for 114 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

— Junior fullback Austin Ramesh sustained an arm injury in the second half and didn’t return.

Inside the Numbers

6 — That’s the number of freshmen the Badgers had on the field for Bradrick Shaw’s 21-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Along with four redshirt freshmen — Shaw, Hornibrook, Edwards and guard Jon Dietzen — a pair of true freshmen — A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus — were in the game as well.

37.2% — That’s Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s completion percentage in his three games against Wisconsin after managing to hit on just 12 of 31 throws on Saturday night.

3-2 — That’s Wisconsin Big Ten record, leaving them one game behind Nebraska in the West Division. If the Badgers win out, and the Huskers lose any of their final four games, Wisconsin will play for a Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis for the fourth time in six years.

10 — That’s the number of pass break-ups the Wisconsin defense had, including one that led to an interception.

What’s Next?

Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) will travel down I-90/39 next Saturday to take on Northwestern (4-4, 3-2). The Badgers haven’t won in Evanston since 1999.

Preview: No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-0, 4-0) vs the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers (5-2 2-2)

The time: 6 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: ESPN with Joe Tessitore and Todd Blackledge in the booth, and Holly Rowe on the sideline.

The last time: Kicker Rafael Gaglianone hit a 46-yard field goal with 4 seconds left to give Wisconsin a 23-21 win last year at Nebraska.

The series: Wisconsin 6-4

The line: Wisconsin -9.5

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

CB Natrell Jamerson (leg)

RT Jake Maxwell (shoulder)

OUT

LB Griffin Grady (shoulder)

NT Olive Sagapolu (arm)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) One more time

The toughest start to a Big Ten season in school history continues on Saturday night for Wisconsin, as they face their fifth top-10 opponent already this year with Nebraska in town. Asking kids to continually get up for big game after big game would seem like a difficult task but this team is a little different.

“Just taking it one game at a time in all honesty,” linebacker T.J. Watt told the Big Ten Network this week on how they are handling the schedule. “I know it sounds cliché, but you have to take it one practice at a time, one play at a time, and then once it’s game day, you just have to let loose.

“Have fun with this. Not everyone gets to play in big games like this week in and week out like we do. So we just have to have fun and showcase our talents each week.”

2) Next man in — again

The seemingly never ending rash of injuries continued last week for Wisconsin, as they lost leading tackler Jack Cichy for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The junior inside linebacker was playing at such a high level that those around the program felt he was the MVP of the defense through the first seven games.

But just as they did when Chris Orr, Natrell Jamerson, Vince Biegel and Olive Sagapolu went down earlier this year,  the Badgers will ask the next guy to step in and not have a drop-off. This time that responsibility falls to sophomore Ryan Connelly and junior Leon Jacobs.

A former walk-on, Connelly stepped in admirably against LSU in the opener, while Jacobs started the first three games at inside linebacker last year before an injury sidelined him.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing for a talented guy like Jack Cichy to go down,” Biegel said. “But it’s not going to take just Leon and Ryan to step in. It’s also going to take our whole defensive front seven to fill in for guys that go down.”

Connelly is expected to get the first crack at the starting gig, but as Wisconsin has done at outside linebacker, rotating the foursome of Biegel, Watt, Garrett Dooley and Zack Baun, don’t be surprised if Jacobs sees plenty of time next to T.J. Edwards.

3) Which Tommy Armstrong shows up

If Nebraska is to pull the upset, quarterback Tommy Armstrong will need to continue playing at the level he has so far this year. The senior’s quarterback rating of 142.3 is the highest of his career, and he’s averaging an interception just once every 37 throws, the lowest rate of his time in Lincoln.

But he’s done all of that against defenses that aren’t on Wisconsin’s level. And if history is any indication, the Badgers will give Armstrong fits. Two of his worst days as the starter at Nebraska came against UW’s 3-4 scheme. He completed just 16 of 47 throws in the 2014 and 2015 games combined — both Nebraska losses.

If the good Armstrong shows up, Nebraska should be in the game until the end, as he’s got plenty of weapons to get the ball to. But if the Tommy Armstrong of old got on the charter flight to Madison, it’s likely to be a long night for him and the Huskers offense.

4) Running game on track?

The Wisconsin running game has come alive in the past two weeks, piling up 403 yards on the ground, including 298 by running back Corey Clement. The senior’s back-to-back 100-yard games were his first since accomplishing that against Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech in his freshman season.

But it took a lot of carries to get it done. The Badgers called Clement’s number a combined 60 times in the games against Ohio State and Iowa, and if it were up to him, they’d keep giving him the ball even if taking all that contact isn’t ideal in the long term.

“I’m all for it, to be honest,” Clement said. “If they want to give me 35 carries, then so be it. (It’s) my senior season, so I’m ready to get as many carries as I can.”

It’s not just Clement, though. The offensive line is also starting to gel despite not having a clear starting lineup. They used eight guys against Iowa and six different combinations. Obviously, they’d like to find their best five guys, but until they do expect to see similar rotations.

5) The crowd

The buzz leading into the showdown with then-No. 2 Ohio State two weeks ago was at an all-time high, certainly helped by the fact ESPN’s College GameDay was in town, and it was the first Big Ten night game in Madison in five years.  And even though the Badgers lost, the atmosphere surrounding the game didn’t disappoint.

But that same juice and electricity, at least in the lead up to the game, hasn’t been as evident this week. Perhaps it’s because the novelty factor of a night game has worn off or the fact Wisconsin is so heavily favored. No matter what the reason, it’s definitely different.

Now all of this isn’t to say it won’t be a great environment on Saturday night. It will be, and the crowd will definitely help Wisconsin. But expecting something like we saw when the Buckeyes came to town is probably not in the cards.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

  • Wisconsin’s defense has held their last 10 opponents under their season scoring average
  • The Badgers used eight different offensive linemen last week against Iowa and six different offensive line combinations
  • Wisconsin has outscored Nebraska 107 to 41 in their last two meetings at Camp Randall Stadium
  • In their last 13 trophy games, the Badgers are 12-1, including a perfect 2-0 against Nebraska in the battle for the Freedom Trophy

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 17 (3-4 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 13 (4-3 on the season)
Jake Zimmermann’s prediction: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 13 (5-2 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 13 (4-3 on the season)
Eric Rogers’ prediction: Wisconsin 28, Nebraska 20 (5-2 on the season)