Much like Wisconsin’s wide receivers, the insider linebackers are a group that is heavily relied on because of its depth. Returning both starters from a season ago is one thing, but to return an All-American in senior T.J. Edwards and Butkus Award watch list nominee Ryan Connelly – a junior – is another.
Both players have been solid through the early stretch of the season. Connelly has already recorded 22 tackles, 4.5 of those for a loss, and a sack. Edwards has 19 tackles, 3.5 of those for a loss, and an interception. Both have also equally pressured the quarterback with two hurries, a number that shows the UW defensive line is opening some alleys up the middle.
UW continues to be fortunate to have a “third starter” in Chris Orr, who has been a valuable backup and a reliable rotational player. Orr has 12 tackles and recovered a fumble in the season opener. Should something happen to Edwards or Connelly, Orr is capable of preventing a drop off in production.
When he’s healthy, senior Andrew Van Ginkel is Wisconsin’s best pass rusher. Also on the Butkus Award watch list, Van Ginkel has seven tackles, a team-high three quarterback hurries, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack in practically just two games (injuries early against BYU, limited against Iowa). A restless bye week should mean big things for him moving forward.
In terms of the pass rush as a whole, the defense only has three sacks and 11 quarterback hurries, and a lot of that falls on the outside linebacking group. Zack Baun has stepped in and played fairly well at the starting outside linebacker position opposite Van Ginkel (18 tackles, 1.5 for loss), but the junior has yet to register a sack and only had one quarterback hurry. Reserves Christian Bell, Noah Burks and Tyler Johnson have been OK but the defense is in need of more players to pressure the quarterback and set the edge. In the last two weeks without a healthy Van Ginkel, it was evident the amount of time Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was given in the pocket and the numerous open running lanes for the BYU skill players.
There will be more opportunities against pro-style offenses in the weeks to come, so the Badgers need to find a way to make opposing offenses one-dimensional.
There aren’t many better inside linebacker combos in the country than Edwards and Connelly, who have been critical in leading a defense that lost seven starters off last year’s unit. Part of that loss has been felt at the outside backer position throughout the first four games, but I believe with the team getting healthier. Having a couple of games under its belt, Wisconsin will be a good position to lean on a solid group of linebackers like it has in the past.