If there is one position where there is almost too much talent this year for the Wisconsin Badgers, it’s the linebacker position.
After the 2016 season, the Badgers lost two starting outside linebackers, Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, both of whom ended up being drafted. Injuries and coaches’ willingness to try different lineup combinations led to playing time being spread out amongst linebackers. Now, the Badgers are primed to be even better despite the departures.
Despite there being four linebacker positions, seven players figure to play meaningful time throughout most of the games.
To start, junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards is an absolute machine. He’ll never be the flashy player that Watt was, but he reminds any fan of Chris Borland. Edwards is a pure stopper as he lead the Badgers with 89 total tackles in 2016 while tacking on 3.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.
Edwards is also dynamic in the pass defense, totaling two pass break ups and three interceptions. He is Mr. Consistent and figures to continue to be just that.
Senior Jack Cichy, who could line-up at either inside or outside linebacker, is going to be the best linebacker for the Badgers this year. Edwards is going to be more consistent, but like Watt from last season, Cichy has the higher ceiling and will make more impact plays.
One only needs to look back to the end of Cichy’s sophomore season when he had three sacks in the second half against USC in the Holiday Bowl. In 2015, Cichy counted 60 tackles on the season. Cichy went down about halfway through the 2016 season with a pectoral tear, yet Cichy still tallied 60 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
With his athleticism and big play potential, Cichy will be able to convert opportunities that his teammates create on the defensive side of the ball. This makes Cichy the best linebacker heading into the 2017 season.
Other linebackers that will have impacts will be OLBs Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs and ILBs Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr.
Dooley and Connelly played unexpected big roles in the 2016 season as injuries pushed them into starter roles. Dooley racked up 3.5 sacks while Connelly clogged up the middle as an inside linebacker getting 59 total tackles.
Orr and Jacobs are a bit harder to assess. Orr played all of a single play for the Badgers in 2016 as he tore his ACL against LSU. Heading into the 2016 season, he figured to have a major role at inside linebacker and heading into 2017 that expectation remains the same.
Jacobs is an interesting case. In his tenure at Wisconsin, he has changed positions a handful of times from inside linebacker to fullback. Now it seems he has finally settled into the position he was originally recruited to play, outside linebacker.
At media day earlier in the summer, one of the most apparent things was just how much bigger Jacobs has gotten. That coupled with reports of Jacobs literally lifting lineman off of the ground are adding a sort of lore around him as a player.
It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff finds playing time for all of the linebackers, but one thing is for sure, Cichy will be leading the way.