Wisconsin’s fight for backup ILB reps intensifies after Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury

MADISON, Wis. — Mike Maskalunas wants to make it clear his respect for teammate Jack Cichy as a role model runs so deep he felt terrible when learning about Cichy’s season-ending torn right ACL injury. Cichy was a brother, a leader and one hell of a football player, who was preparing for a special senior season as the best inside linebacker on one of the best position units in the Big Ten.

That’s where Maskalunas begins. However, the competitor in him also saw something else when Cichy suffered his injury two weeks ago in practice: opportunity.

“You hate to see him go down, and you pray for him,” Maskalunas said. “But at the same time, the rest of us can’t really miss a beat. We’ve got to be ready to take advantage of every opportunity we can get. So we feel for Jack, and we’re really disappointed that he’s not going to be able to play this season. But the rest of us have got to be ready to go and step in there.”

Before Cichy’s injury, Wisconsin’s inside linebacker rotation was set. Cichy and T.J. Edwards were poised to start, while Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly would rotate in to form a stellar foursome. The biggest problem facing coaches was how often to use each player to keep everybody satisfied.

But the fight for Wisconsin’s fourth inside linebacker spot has become interesting. Coaches likely will rely heavily on Edwards, Orr and Connelly. They also may be confronted with needing someone else to spell that trio. The leading candidates to fill the role in the final week of fall camp are Maskalunas, Arrington Farrar and Griffin Grady.

“If the opportunity comes where a fourth guy proves himself, I guess they’ll have no choice but to play him,” Farrar said.

Cichy’s injury is only the latest setback for Wisconsin’s inside linebackers. And it further proves the value of building depth. No Badgers position group has been as snake-bitten as the inside linebackers the past two seasons, yet few have performed better.

In 2015, inside linebacker Leon Jacobs sustained a season-ending right toe injury and missed the team’s final nine games. His injury paved the way for Orr to take over as the starter. That is, until Orr suffered a leg injury and Cichy replaced him.

In 2016, Edwards missed the Badgers’ first two games while recovering from a left foot injury. When Orr suffered a season-ending right ACL injury in the opener against LSU, Connelly took Orr’s spot. Edwards and Cichy started in Week 3. But Connelly found himself back in the starting rotation after Cichy endured a season-ending pectoral tear in the seventh game. Jacobs also worked his way back into the rotation after he was moved from fullback because of injuries.

Connelly may not have had an opportunity to showcase his talent last season if not for the injuries sustained by Orr and Cichy. Instead, Connelly started eight games and earned Big Ten player of the week honors for his 11-tackle performance in an overtime victory against Nebraska. Given his situation, he isn’t ruling out Maskalunas, Farrar and Grady in their quest to crack the rotation.

“I can really see anything happening, to be honest with you,” Connelly said. “Injuries happen. That’s unfortunately the thing we’ve become used to here the past couple years. I could see a fourth, definitely.”

Maskalunas is a 6-foot-3, 234-pound redshirt freshman who arrived as a walk-on in 2016. Grady, 6-3, 225 pounds, played as a freshman last season and appeared in 12 games with 4 tackles. The pair received praise from Badgers coach Paul Chryst during spring practice, as both players earned the opportunity for most of the reps while the team’s best players sat out to nurse injuries.

Farrar, meanwhile, is learning the nuances of the position but could possess the greatest ceiling. Farrar was the highest-rated commit in Wisconsin’s 2015 class, the only 4-star prospect among 19 players, according to 247Sports. He played in 26 games over the past two seasons as a reserve safety and recorded 13 tackles with 1 forced fumble. But his most significant obstacle was keeping his weight near the 200-pound mark necessary to play in the secondary with enough quickness.

Coaches moved Farrar to inside linebacker in the spring, and he has steadily picked up the scheme. He also entered fall camp weighing 237 pounds.

“He’s done a great job of making that transition,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “Physically, he kind of grew into that position. So it’s not like he had to change a whole lot once you moved him. It’s just a comfort level. There’s things that you can just tell sometimes he feels great and sees it and is very reactive.

“And then there’s other times like, ‘That didn’t quite look right,’ and he kind of gets hung up. It’s just continuing for him to push mentally. Every rep for him is great because it’s a learning experience, and he’s handled it well.”

Farrar said one significant difference came in the person blocking him. Before he switched positions, he may have been blocked in practice by 189-pound wide receiver Jazz Peavy. Now, he is muscling up to 328-pound left tackle Michael Deiter. And the more he plays, the more he realizes how much information he must learn.

“With some things, I can rely on my instincts,” Farrar said. “I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t know how to do it. But if a gap opens up, I’m really quick at getting to those gaps. I see it. Sometimes I look like Superman. Sometimes I look like Clark Kent. It’s trying to be consistent with it and hit stuff and work on getting around blocks.”

Wisconsin approaches its season opener Sept. 1 against Utah State with three proven stalwarts at inside linebacker. Leonhard noted whether the Badgers require a fourth will depend on how much the team could trust its reserves and how many reps coaches are willing to split.

In the meantime, Maskalunas, Grady and Farrar will continue to work for a potential opportunity that wasn’t available two weeks ago.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen or when something’s going to change where the next guy has to be ready to go in the game,” Maskalunas said. “Having that fourth guy ready to go and ready to get in the game is something that the coaches are definitely trying to get.”

The post Wisconsin’s fight for backup ILB reps intensifies after Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury appeared first on Land of 10.

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