The competition between the University of Wisconsin football team’s inside linebackers isn’t that of a typical spring position battle.
T.J. Edwards led the Badgers in tackles last season as a redshirt freshman.
Chris Orr played so well in his first opportunity as a first-team player that Leon Jacobs never returned to the starting lineup after being ejected for targeting against Troy.
And just three months ago, Jack Cichy capped off a fantastic second half of the season by recording three sacks in UW’s Holiday Bowl victory over Southern California.
These are far from unproven players, and only two of the three will be able to start for the Badgers when they open the season against LSU on Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field.
“I love that there’s three guys for two spots,” starting outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “That elevates play.
“Chris Orr, Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards have all proven that they can play that spot. So now it’s those guys elevating their game. Five practices in, that’s what we’ve seen so far. Those three elevating their game, battling for time and battling for those two spots.”
Edwards, the only one of the three that began last season as a starter, appears the most likely to keep hold of his job after an outstanding first year.
Orr took over for Jacobs — who has since moved to fullback — early in the season and was only slowed down by a leg injury he suffered at Illinois in late October. Now in his first full offseason with UW, Orr said he continues to better adjust to the speed of the college game.
“Not necessarily the speed of the players, but just the speed of the play happening,” Orr said. “I think I can just see things better and clearer and am able to make the play one step faster. I think I’ve improved in that aspect of the game.”
Orr’s injury was what opened the door for Cichy to shine.
Then a redshirt sophomore, the former walk-on moved inside from his backup outside linebacker spot and filled in for Orr with no noticeable drop-off in production.
Cichy, whom Biegel calls “Three-sack Jack” after the Holiday Bowl performance, has gained 10 to 15 pounds since the bowl game and worked on his ability to handle blocks.
He also said there’s still a possibility he could move back to outside linebacker at some point this offseason, where Biegel and T.J. Watt are currently the presumed starters.
Cichy, Orr and Edwards have been rotating first-team reps during the early stages of spring practice, and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox wants them focusing simply on improvement rather than the depth chart at this point in the offseason.
Regardless of how the battle plays out, there will be plenty of snaps to go around.
“Whoever ends up as the two starters, that other guy is going to get playing time,” Cichy said. “We realize that. We realize we’re probably going to have some sort of rotation and we’ll all try to help and contribute in whatever way we can.”
Deciding on two starters will be difficult for the Badgers but a great problem to have. Unlike battles at quarterback and defensive back, UW knows what it has in these three players.
It also makes for an interesting decision on how many snaps to give the odd man out, and if the Badgers will experiment with playing all three at the same time in certain packages.
“We’re all having pretty good practices, so it’s fun and interesting,” Orr said.
“All three of us had pretty productive years. We’re going to find a way to have all three of us on the field somehow getting involved. We’re just too dynamic of players. I’m eager to see how it’s going to all work out.”