MADISON — In a group of linebackers ranging from playmakers in Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt and rising stars in Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, two linebackers Garret Dooley and Ryan Connelly were not given much consideration at the start of the 2016 season. Now, in the fourth quarter of college football, the two juniors are seeing increased time on the field and a growth in leadership roles.
Dooley, who in 2015 only had three tackles, currently has 31, including 4.5 tackles for a loss. He saw his first start of the season, going in for an injured Vince Biegel a few weeks prior. With Biegel back in the lineup, Dooley has seen consistent rotation between him, Biegel and Watt throughout the most recent games against Iowa and Nebraska. With Watt listed as questionable with a left shoulder injury in this week’s preliminary injury report, that rotation may be adjusted on Saturday.
“We will just have another rotation with Zack Baun. He’s already ready to step up. He’s played in some big games this year. If TJ is ready to go, I think we will be in the same rotation we have been doing for the past couple days. Whatever it is we are all ready to go,” Dooley said.
The linebacking unit’s ability to reduce any drop-off rate despite injuries throughout the season is remarkable and, according to Dooley and Connelly thanks to the nature of the players and the hard work of the coaches.
“It’s a group effort. Everyone knows what they are doing and that’s thanks to the coaches. As far as the depth, we are competitive amongst each other which drives that depth. Everyone wants to be on the field so you have to be as good as the starter or better than the starter so that’s what drives the depth I’d say,” Connelly said.
Connelly, too, has seen more game time play this year, performing particularly well against Nebraska last weekend which awarded him Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week. With him and Leon Jacobs going in for the injured Jack Cichy, Connelly made 11 tackles, including two for a loss, and two pass breakups.
“I was pretty proud of the way me and Leon were able to come in and fill in for Jack, make sure the defense didn’t drop off,” Connelly said. “We knew we had to go in there and do a job and our defense would play well, and that’s what happened.”
Though the linebacking unit played well in the Badgers win against Nebraska, Dooley said there are some obvious things to improve on against a tough team in Northwestern this weekend.
“I think that we could get after the quarterback a little bit more. Obviously we only had one sack in the game. That’s really not who we are. We usually like to get at the quarterback a lot more, so that, I think, we can improve on. Then as a defense stopping the run is obviously a number one thing for us.”
Along with a talented team, Northwestern poses the challenge of a low-energy atmosphere. Both linebackers said that is not a concern as the defense has always been told that they need to make their own energy on the road. Not much changed in the team’s approach to practice this week even though they will expect a different energy level this week.
“We’re still practicing the same, going through everything the same. It’ll be a different environment but Coach Chryst always says the energy is brought from the guys that are playing between the lines. Crowd side really has nothing to do with it,” Connelly said.
“Any atmosphere is just a place where we have to bring our own energy. Anytime we are on the road it’s just us and our team, so no matter who we play, we just have to bring our own energy and just make sure we get it done on the field,” Dooley said.
And the easiest way for Dooley and his defensive teammates to bring that energy on the field is to make the big plays and feed off each other’s talent.
“If someone else gets a play, it gets everyone else pumped. I think that’s something that can bring energy to the team, especially if our offense gets going. As a defense, we can continue to get the ball back so that we know they can score. As a team, we can feed off each other’s energy.”
Both juniors felt their role on the team is defined not by whether they were the starters in the lineup each week, but the amount of added talent that they bring to the many aspects of the game.
“I think one thing that especially going into the season that was going to be a crucial role was my play on special teams and I’ve continued to do that this year. As a rotational player not having a drop-off whether it’s myself in the game Vince and T.J. or Zach, whoever it is we don’t want to have a drop off at that position so just going out there and putting all our effort in,” Dooley said.
“Just another depth at the linebacker position,” Connelly said of his role. “We know we have a lot of linebackers here that can play and play well, so I feel like the coaches have confidence that they can put different guys in the field that are able to make plays.”
The coaches and the linebacking unit have a clear and honest trust in all the players that have been out on the field in the Badgers past eight games. The loss of key playmakers in Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, as well as T.J. Edwards and Vince Biegel temporarily, have been disappointing to the defensive unit as a whole, but the linebacking unit has been able to move guys up, showcase their talents and maintain Wisconsin’s tough defense.