MADISON — The linebacker position is the most involved unit on a defense. Linebackers are responsible for run support, pass rushing, pass defense, and communication, among other responsibilities. That much responsibility requires an aptitude for versatility, and a high level of trust from the coaching staff in the linebackers’ ability. Without a strong linebacking corps, a defense can collapse without players designed to fill in the gaps where a lineman or secondary defender cannot.
Historically, the Badgers have had dominant and electric linebackers, and were counting on that same pattern of energy leading up to this season. But football is a physically-taxing sport, and teammates can fall. Jack Cichy and Zack Baun were in line to anchor the Wisconsin linebacking corps, but both fell prey to season-ending injuries.
“Our identity is about guys being ready to take their opportunity,” defensive end Alec James said. “As a defense, we’re pretty deep at certain positions and those guys are ready to step up and play so that’s a credit to them … anytime a guy goes down, you don’t wanna see it but at the same time you just gotta bring guys around you and keep pushing to get better.”
The rotation of seniors Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley, juniors T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, and sophomore Chris Orr has, thus far, been a deep and productive group of athletes.
In the season’s first two games, Orr has led the team in total tackles, while Edwards ranked second versus FAU and was tied for first with Orr versus Utah State. Edwards and Orr have both shown maturity in their analysis of on and off the field attitudes. Edwards has found that the defense has handled their challenges thus far exceptionally.
“I think we’ve done an excellent job of handling adversity; not panicking, guys stepping up, we just keep playing,” Edwards said.
As the Badgers have struggled out of the gates in their first two matchups, committing communication errors and not starting each game with enough energy. However, whatever’s being done at halftime is working wonders, and the defense has taken note, accepting the fact that second the second half level of play should be implemented from start to finish.
Orr was sidelined for the entirety of last season after sustaining a knee injury versus LSU. Orr says it was devastating to lose source of passion, but the growth he underwent as a result of his new free time made him a better and smarter player.
“I love this game to death, Orr said. “When it was taken away from me I was heartbroken so it means everything to me to be back out there … I think I’m way better now then I would’ve been last year on a football IQ level, I haven’t hesitated at all, I feel great.”
Orr noted watching film, sitting in on other position’s meetings, meeting with former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox one-on-one, and having the time to analyze and be more critical of plays as sources of his intellectual confidence on the field.
Perhaps most notable in conversations with this group of players was their hesitance to refer to themselves when talking about ways in which to improve. This, of course, while noteworthy, was not surprising, as each player said they feed off of the energy and experience of those around them. Everyone holds each other accountable, so everyone has the same level of responsibility when it comes to playmaking,
“We hold ourselves at a high standard,” Jacobs said.
That baseline trust in one another is what makes this group so special, they’re united under the same mindset: we win together, or we lose together.
Orr said it best.
“I tell everybody: ‘If you’re looking to someone else to make a play, make it yourself.’”