ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a power five conference scholarship offer, just getting an opportunity to play college football was enough for T.J. Edwards.
After all, Lakes Community High School – located in Lake Villa, Ill., a typical small-town Midwestern city of roughly 8,900 - had never had a scholarship division 1 recruit (the best they could do was a preferred walk-on a couple years before Edwards). It’s part of the reason why his commitment to Western Michigan in June 2013 was celebrated in the community.
But if it wasn’t for the persistence of a former Wisconsin coach, Edwards would be in Mount Pleasant, Mich., this weekend preparing the Broncos defense for in-state rival Central Michigan, instead of 130 miles to the southeast preparing No.8 Wisconsin for a pivotal matchup against No.4 Michigan.
Think how much different things would be for Wisconsin’s defense.
“To do the things it takes to be good, it’s a little harder. He embraces that,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said of Edwards, a freshman All-American a season ago. “He works at it. He wants to be as good of player as he can be. He’s earned the respect of his peers and he’s got a bright future.”
Entering tomorrow’s game against the Wolverines (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), Edwards is third on the team with 17 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. In Wisconsin’s 30-6 win at No.8 Michigan State last weekend, Edwards had only four stops but added a pass breakup, a quarterback pressure than led to a first-quarter interception and an interception of his own in the third quarter.
If one wouldn’t know any better, it would be thought that Edwards had a full fall camp to get into a rhythm instead of missing most of August with a broken bone in his left foot.
It’s a credit to how hard he pushed himself during the summer with his conditioning and the amount of time he spent studying the playbook throughout the offseason, including during fall camp when he watched in a walking boot.
“It helps taking those mental reps, but it’s all on those guys that I’m out there with,” Edwards said, who reports no pain in the injured foot. “They make my job a whole lot easier. As long as I do my part, I should be fine, and that’s what I’ve been able to do thus far.”
Leading the team with 84 tackles a season ago, Edwards’ journey to linebacker was anything but a straight line. He was his high school team’s quarterback, a move he says he’s thankful to his high school coach for because it allowed him to have the ball in his hands and make a name for himself. He finished high school with a 17-3 record as a starting quarterback, throwing for 1,789 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for another 11 scores as a junior.
He played little defense, but former Wisconsin tight end coach Jeff Genyk took notice of a big-bodied player who delivered blocks for his tailbacks and played physical.
“He really had faith in me from the start, and I think he really pushed my tape on the old coaching staff,” Edwards said of Genyk, who now coaches as Vanderbilt. “I was just blessed to be here and lucky to be here with these guys. It took a while for me to sink in.”
As a senior Edwards posted 20 tackles, two sacks and an interception in only three games on defense, but that was at the safety position. He spent his 2014 redshirt year watching Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter on the field, in the film room and made sure to take plenty of mental notes.
“T.J. is one of the many guys who have done such a great job,” Wilcox said. “Watched him play last year (and) did a great job for young guy playing basically playing every game, every snap. He’s a very gifted guy. He’s big, he can run, he’s athletic, very strong and powerful, so he’s got those physical traits. He wants to be good. It’s very important to him.”
Edwards’ deflecting credit falls in line with the “1/11th” saying head coach Paul Chryst has coined since arriving at Wisconsin in December 2015: do your part and trust that the others around you will do theirs. As one of the top inside linebackers, Edwards’ 1/11th is making sure the communicating the calls and be sound up the middle.
That becomes even more paramount with the news that senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel will be out several weeks following foot surgery Thursday night. Who Wilcox decides to use in Biegel’s spot remains an unknown, but that player will be tasked with slowing a Michigan offense averaging 238 yards through the air and 229.8 yards on the ground.
“They (Michigan) do a good job of being physical up front,” Edwards said. “It’s a typical Michigan team. They are really stout and strong and off that they have a good play-action game. That’s where all their big throws come from. All we can try to do is being stout on the run to determine how second and third down go.”
Injuries have been common for Wisconsin at the linebacker position since the season began. Between the injury of Edwards and Biegel, Wisconsin saw inside linebacker Chris Orr injure his knee on the first defensive snap of the season opener and was lost for the season.
The injuries haven’t slowed the position, as Edwards and junior inside linebacker Jack Cichy – who worked together during spring practices and the summer – have helped anchor a defense that has given up one touchdown and three field goals and no runs over 20 yards in the last two games.
“We have a really good group of guys, and we all mesh really well,” Edwards said. “You look to your right and you’re not going to see an unfamiliar face. It doesn’t matter who is out there, you’re going to know that person and know they have your back.”
“We’re just excited to go play another strong team, and try to prove ourselves again,” Edwards added.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, a huge test, but we’re excited about it.”