This season looked like it was going to be an easy one for the University of Wisconsin defense, until inside linebacker Jack Cichy sustained an ACL injury. Now, the security of the defense remains questionable.
The third-ranked defense in the conference was returning eight of their starters from the previous year, and the conference schedule consisted of six of the bottom eight teams within the division last year. By all accounts, there wasn’t going to be much of a challenge for this dynamic defense.
The core of the Badgers defense, has always been the linebackers, and the newest leader of this core was set to be Cichy. Cichy’s injury at the beginning of August left his section without a leader, and a hole that needed to be filled by someone on the team.
That position would be filled with Cichy’s position-mate, and someone who knows what it is like to experience an ACL injury at the beginning of the season: Chris Orr.
Last season, Orr missed the entire season after suffering the same injury as his linebacker counterpart on the first snap of the season. The shared experience has created a bond between the two.
“He can tell me different things that he wouldn’t probably feel comfortable telling other guys,” Orr said. “I’ve just been trying to be there for him, listen to him and help encourage him along the way.”
And with Cichy taking a seat on the sideline this year, Orr has accepted the challenge of taking over his role as a leader. As a leader on the field, that includes learning as much as he can about the playbook so he will be able to help the other guys out.
Orr recognizes the importance of preparation, even with the supposedly easy schedule the Badgers have this season. He knows that any team can pose a challenge, and that the Wisconsin defense needs to be ready for any and all challenges that come their way.
“Whether they say we’re going to have the best season ever or the worst, whatever the case may be,” said Orr. “We try to ignore all of that and have the same approach going into any game,”
At the beginning of the season, it should have been easy for Wisconsin to once again be a conference leader on the defensive side of the ball. Now, the picture is hazier.
The linebacker position has taken more losses than just Cichy. Last week, sophomore linebacker Zach Baun also saw his season end to an injury in his left foot. Add-on stars from last season Vince Biegel and TJ Watt are going to the NFL, and the Badgers are tasked with the challenge of replacing four key contributors.
But the replacements go past the field and to the sideline. For the third year in a row, there will be a new defensive coordinator roaming the sidelines for the Badgers. Paul Chryst decided to look in-program, promoting former defensive back coach Jim Leonhard to the position after just one season in Madison.
Leonhard oversaw one of the most successful branches of Wisconsin’s defense last season, leading his group to the second-most interceptions in the country with 22.
Just two years removed from an NFL career that spanned 10 years and five teams, Leonhard is young enough to relate to his players and has the resume to demand respect from them.
“[Leonhard]’s a really intelligent guy. His football IQ is through the roof,” Orr said. “It’s fun to pick his brain more and more each day to see why he put certain things in the game plan,”
The conference championship is certainly within reach for this team. With Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan all headed to Camp Randall throughout the season, a case can be made that all three of Wisconsin’s best opponents will be taken on at home, which is a major advantage for the Badgers.
For now, the Badgers aren’t looking that far ahead. They realize reaching the championship requires taking the season one step at a time.
If the remainder of the Wisconsin defense manages to stay in good health, and with leaders like Orr leading them through this year, the Badgers are poised to have one of their best seasons to date.