MADISON – The banter was in full force.
Sophomore Chris Orr calls Jack Cichy the “old man” of the inside linebacker position, disregarding the fact that Orr has played the position longer than the redshirt junior. As he playfully insulted his teammate during Sunday’s media day, Cichy sat across from him and did his best to distract while trying to provide serious answers.
It’s evident the relationship is already there between the two young backers, which will be important as the two build chemistry during fall camp with the third starter of their group in a walking boot.
The two rarely played together last season, as Orr emerged during the nonconference season and Cichy didn’t move from reserve outside linebacker until Orr wasn’t saddled with a leg infection. The only time together was when the two lined up occasionally in the box, meaning this camp will be the first time they’ve lined up next to each other.
“Relationship is big between the two inside backers,” Cichy said. “We both have a good knowledge of the defense, and he has a very good football mind. It’s good being in there because I know he knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s going to hold me accountable, and I’ll hold him accountable. I think we have a good bond like that. I’m excited for fall camp to be able to keep working with him. That bond will grow more and more.”
Although his mind has been trained as an outside linebacker, Cichy’s move to the inside in late October once Orr went down was seamless. Giving credit to former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the grad assistants for giving him good working knowledge of the position, Cichy made 43 tackles in his five games inside, which included missing nearly two halves of football because of a targeting penalty.
His big moment was delivering sacks on three consecutive plays, to go along with six other tackles, to win defensive most valuable player honors in the Holiday Bowl.
“As each game progressed, it came more naturally and I was able to understand it better,” Cichy said. “I was able to let loose and try to play 100 miles per hour. Being able to work full time in spring was huge to be able to keep learning it. The more reps I can get, the easier it becomes.”
His success might have not happened if it wasn’t for Orr. Earning playing time as a true freshman by his performance in fall camp, Orr made 44 of his 46 tackles in the team’s first eight games before his leg injury.
Spring football was critical for the young backers to get the terminology down with defensive coordinator/inside linebacker coach Justin Wilcox, who was first hired in late January. Having only 15 spring practices, Cichy said the inside linebackers would try to meet three times a week to make sure there were no hiccups.
The meetings were usually with Wilcox, but Cichy, Edwards and Orr had no problem jumping to the head of the class when Wilcox couldn’t attend.
“I feel like we’ve completely bought in,” Cichy said. “I think we’re going to hit camp running and not miss a beat.”
With better chemistry, Orr is hopeful that Wilcox will turn the duo loose. Although combining for 190 tackles, the trio registered just 5.5 sacks, five of which were Cichy’s. The majority of the team’s sacks went to outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert, who were flipped inside to blitz up the middle in certain passing down.
“With me and T.J. being first year guys, Coach Aranda would run a play call flip to move the outside backers inside,” Orr said. “With Coach Wilcox trusting us and showing we can rush the passers, we’ll get more opportunities to rush the passer and get those sacks. He told us in the beginning of spring if we can show him we can rush the passer, he’s going to let us go. That lit our entire room up. We’re going to be ready for the season.”
Since his injury, Edwards hasn’t been a ghost, still at practice wearing his jersey and doing his best to help coach the players and lighten the mood.
“I think it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a group,” Edwards said. “Last year at this time we didn’t really know how we were going to be. Guys got a chance to play and showed they could play.”
Even with a key injury to last year’s leading tackler, Orr looks around Wisconsin’s starting defense and sees one thing: greatness. Orr hasn’t thought about how his role will change when Edwards returns, only that a front seven that returns a lot of starting experience will get even stronger.
“I feel like we can be great,” Orr said. “I feel there is no limit to what we can achieve.”