MADISON – Could a team really lose the best linebacker in the Big Ten and still not miss a beat?
That’s Wisconsin's task starting this spring, but it might not be as large as some people might think.
Not only do the Badgers have the services of Vince Biegel for another season, Wisconsin has three capable inside linebackers – Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr - with starting experience and redshirt junior T.J. Watt starting to see his role increase.
Joe Schobert heads to the N.F.L. having led Wisconsin with 19.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles. He also finishing second on the team with 79 tackles and caused some teams to scheme away from his field linebacker position.
Biegel hopes to have a similar type of impact. After finishing behind Schobert in tackles for loss (14.5), sacks (8.0), quarterback hurries (nine) and tackles (66), Biegel is flipping to Schobert’s position, one that he knew comfortably last year.
“It's not too much of a transition,” said Biegel, who passed on an opportunity to enter the N.F.L. draft last season. “I'm really excited what me and T.J. can both bring off the edge from a physicality standpoint and from a pass-rush standpoint. I think we're going to have a lot of fun in the backfield.”
Watt will get the first crack of filling Biegel’s boundary linebacker role, an opportunity he earned by his play down the stretch last season. Switching from tight end to linebacker in fall camp, a move designed in part to prevent injury after having both knees operated on, Watt’s athleticism, length and size (6-4, 243) made him an asset in passing downs.
He hadn’t played outside linebacker since his sophomore year at Pewaukee and finished the year with only eight tackles, but Watt’s four quarterback hurries were third on the team and his three pass breakups were eighth.
The main goal for Watt now, according to head coach Paul Chryst, is to get comfortable in run situations.
“It’s taking that next step,” Chryst said. “That’s the one thing that’s tremendous about spring ball. We’re not getting ready to play an opponent. You can focus on what that is that you need to improve.”
After Biegel and Watt, Wisconsin has utilized junior Garrett Dooley as the main backup and will give freshmen Zach Baun, Dallas Jeanty, Tyler Johnson and Jake Whalen opportunities to earn reps.
While the depth might be unproven at outside linebacker, inside linebacker is stacked with talent.
Cichy, a junior who can play inside or outside linebacker, has rotated in with sophomores Edwards and Orr throughout the early portions of spring. Cichy had sacks on three consecutive plays in the Holiday Bowl and finished the season with five sacks and 60 tackles, fifth-best on the team.
It’s a stark change from where the program was last year, facing major questions of who was going to fill the void left by seniors Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter.
Edwards was the only consistent starter last season and finished with a team-best 84 tackles for loss, earning him freshmen All-American honors by Scout.com. Orr started in a reserve role before eventually playing his way into the starting lineup. His 14 tackles (11 solo) against Troy in the nonconference season were an introduction to his talent level, but a leg infection caused him to miss three games near the end of the season.
That injury forced Cichy to move from outside to inside linebacker. In the final five games of the season, Cichy had at least eight tackles four times and averaged a sack a game.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will keep Cichy at inside linebacker for the time being but doesn’t discount the junior’s ability to play multiple roles.
“He’s a very instinctive guy,” Wilcox said. “He’s slippery. He’s hard to block. He does a good job finishing plays. He’s very competitive. I think Jack can help us at a couple different spots.”
Wisconsin will go through spring with sophomore Ryan Connelly and freshman Nick Thomas as backup inside linebackers. Connelly earned a scholarship last fall and Thomas will be going through his second spring after enrolling early last year. He missed time last year recovering from the same sports hernia surgery that tailback Corey Clement went through, so these 15 practices are important for him to carve out a niche.