Depth is a term often thrown around in sports to describe a team. When a football team is “deep” at a position, that is seen as a strength and a reflection on their ability to acquire talent. Having multiple players that can step in and be contributors is paramount in a game as violent as football. Football is not a contact sport, it is a collision sport with players acting as human missiles playing 1000 mph trying get an advantage. In a league as physical and rugged as the Big Ten, depth is not a luxury but a necessity. Depth is what may save the Wisconsin Badgers defense.
When teams lose a preseason All-American before the first snap of the year, there is a deflating feeling that permeates the team. Linebacker Jack Cichy was expected to just not only be a leader for this season’s defense, but be a household name throughout the country. Losing a player of his caliber is devastating, but if there is one position group that can withstand that kind of blow it is the linebacking core. Cichy was slotted to start next to redshirt junior T.J. Edwards, another outstanding returning linebacker. In the wake of the injury, redshirt Sophomore Chris Orr and redshirt Junior Ryan Connelly will be tasked with replacing him.
Orr is coming off an injury of his own that cost him almost the entirety of last season. He was injured on the first snap of last season and issued a medical redshirt. As a freshman in 2015, Orr started six games and logged a team-high 14 tackles against Troy. The DeSoto, TX product has a chance to be a tremendous impact player if he can build off that season. What made Orr so special was his ability fight through blocks and clean up tackles. Cichy was a tackling machine during his time on the field last season and it will be partially up to Orr to fill that void.
Connelly earned his stripes last season, playing in all 14 games and making eight starts. He was named Big Ten player of the week for his 11 tackle performance in an overtime victory over Nebraska. At 6-3 and just a hair over 230 pound, Connelly has the range and mobility to make plays sideline to sideline as well as be an impact blitzer. Part of what made Cichy such a valuable player was his versatility as both a cover guy and a pass rusher. Connelly has a chance to step into that role as a three-down impact player.
While both of these players are extremely talented in their own rights, neither one is Jack Cichy. The good news is for Connelly and Orr, neither of them has to be. The advantage of having depth is that new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard can deploy them in situations that best fit their skills. Couple that with the experience and leadership that Edwards will provide, the Wisconsin linebackers should be among the fiercest position groups in the Big Ten. Next man up is a cliché that almost every football coach in America has uttered at some point, luckily for the Badgers there are two players that can step up into vast void left by one of the nation’s best linebackers.