<
>

Injury forces Wisconsin linebackers to bond ahead of difficult season opener

MADISON, Wis. -- T.J. Edwards didn't think one quick cut during a simple offseason 10-yard shuttle drill could possibly derail the start to his sophomore season. Edwards, Wisconsin's leading tackler last year, had worked so hard on the cusp of fall camp to position himself as a standout within a stacked linebacker unit. So when he felt a tinge of pain in his left foot, he continued on as though nothing was wrong.

"I thought there was a chance I'd be all right," Edwards said. "But after a couple minutes of me just standing on it, I'm like, 'All right, maybe something's wrong here.' Then I got the X-rays. The rest is history, I guess."

Those X-rays yielded a result that made Edwards' heart sink: a broken left foot that has relegated him to spectator during the Badgers' entire fall camp to date. Wisconsin's coaches haven't provided a timetable for Edwards' return. He watched Wednesday's practice without a walking boot for the first time. But Edwards expressed caution about returning in time for the team's season opener against LSU on Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

"To be honest, the first game is really tough," Edwards said. "I think I could possibly go, but it's probably not the type of thing I should do. I'd love to get some reps in the next two games so when Big Ten play comes around I'm not just jumping in there with my first game reps. I think I'll play in the game after that."

Wisconsin's group of linebackers is considered its greatest defensive strength and one of the top units in the Big Ten. But Edwards' potential absence certainly leaves a hole as the opener approaches against a team that could not be more difficult to stop on the ground.

LSU ranked sixth nationally in rushing yards per game last season (256.8) behind the strength of tailback Leonard Fournette. As a team, the Tigers averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt, trailing only Georgia Southern among FBS schools. As a point of reference for how dominant LSU was in the SEC, consider that Georgia and Ole Miss were second in the league at nearly a full yard per carry behind the Tigers (5.14).

The Badgers are fortunate to have two middle linebackers ready to step in and play, Jack Cichy and Chris Orr. Cichy recorded 60 tackles last season and five sacks -- three in one incredible three-play stretch against USC in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. Orr played in 10 of 13 games and registered 46 tackles. That duo spent the spring working as part of a three-man group with Edwards, vying for the Badgers' two inside starting spots. But without Edwards, the margin for error becomes much slimmer.

"It's probably going to be us two for Lambeau," Cichy said. "Now it's not a three-man rotation. It's us two, and we've got all of camp to be ready, and we have to be ready. There's really no other option."

Badgers coaches are working diligently to find the necessary replacements should Cichy or Orr require rest. However, there is largely unproven talent in the backup roles. Ryan Connelly is a redshirt sophomore who appeared in 12 games last season and recorded 15 tackles. Nick Thomas is a redshirt freshman who has yet to play in a college game.

"You don't really change your approach," Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "It's just the next man up. Obviously, Chris and Jack have played quite a bit, and those are the guys we'll be counting on. T.J., we'll get back as soon as we can and we'll find out who's that third and fourth and next guy. We're trying to find out who's next in line, and there's a really good competition for that right now."

On-field relationships are always important for players to understand a teammate's tendencies and avoid any breakdowns. For Cichy and Orr, fall camp has provided a wealth of opportunity to glean a better grasp of how the other plays. Although both produced breakout seasons a year ago, they rarely lined up next to each other. Cichy began last year as a backup outside linebacker and only moved inside when Orr missed three games after sustaining a leg injury.

Cichy said Orr's football pedigree had helped to expedite the process of working together. Orr's father, Terry, played tight end at Texas and for the Washington Redskins from 1986-93. His three brothers all played college football, and one older brother, Zach Orr, now plays linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.

"I trust him a lot," Cichy said. "He's got a great football mind. He comes from a great football family. He gets the game of football, so it's nice having someone next to me that I can trust with all that information."

With one of the biggest games of college football's opening weekend looming, that trust likely will be put to the ultimate test.

"I think as a unit we all have pressure on ourselves," Orr said. "We want to show the entire nation how special we can be as a defense. We expect nothing but the best, no matter who goes out there on the field."