MADISON, Wis. — T.J. Edwards still hears occasional flak from folks back home about what could have been if he followed through on his decision to quit football. He was a high school freshman in Lake Villa, Ill., when he suffered a broken foot near the end of his freshman season. That’s when he vowed to give up the sport for good.
“I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to golf,’ ” Edwards said. “Do you know how much money they make on the PGA Tour? If you finish in the top five, it’s like $500K. I watched Tiger [Woods] out there. I kind of got talked out of that once I realized we had to wear khaki pants every day. That didn’t work out.”
Among the most vocal advocates for Edwards to continue playing football was Luke Mertens, who served as Lake Villa’s high school coach. Mertens saw something special in Edwards even as a freshman and knew that, by the time he was a senior, he’d be a dominant force with a chance to earn a college scholarship.
“I’m like, ‘Just trust me, you need to stick with us here,'” Mertens recalled. “I would say it all worked out pretty well.”
Edwards certainly has taken an unusual path to stardom. He was a 2-star recruit whose primary high school position was quarterback. Now, the 6-foot-1, 244-pound redshirt junior has developed into a first-team Associated Press All-America inside linebacker at Wisconsin and could leave school early for the NFL draft.
While Edwards has not made up his mind about his playing future, the fact he has come so far in such a short time frame is not lost on him.
“It’s incredible,” Edwards said. “You grow up just wanting to go to the NFL, or the PGA Tour. Being able to make that decision is a blessing. I think that’s why it’s not too much stress on me. I know when I make it, I’ll be completely calm and at peace with it whatever way it goes. It’s awesome just to think about.”
Few people beyond Edwards’ inner circle could have seen this type of development coming when he arrived at Wisconsin in 2014. Mertens described Edwards as a raw athlete but one who required time in high school to grow into a position. Edwards didn’t move up to the varsity football team until late in his sophomore season, so he could practice while the team prepared for the state playoffs.
Mertens said Edwards possessed an “it factor,” which made him a natural fit as Lake Villa’s quarterback. After all, the easiest way to have the team’s best athlete and player impact the game was to have him touch the ball on every offensive play. So, Edwards took over as the starter in his junior season and thrived. He threw for 1,789 yards with 19 touchdowns and added 492 yards rushing with 11 scores.
While many high school stars are two-way players, Mertens estimated that Edwards played roughly 15 snaps on defense during his entire senior season.
“I know most people probably look at that and are like, ‘You guys are idiots. How did you miss that one?’ ” Mertens said. “We didn’t miss it. We had lots of talks about it. In fact, we actually had him on our kickoff team. I’m willing to bet we were probably the only team in America that has our starting quarterback running down on kickoff. We knew what he could do defensively.
“Even my defensive coordinator was like, ‘He does so much for us offensively, we can’t run any risk of anything happening to him.’ We made that decision, both offensive and defensive coaches, that what’s best for our team is him being in that quarterback position. We just agreed that in certain situations where maybe we weren’t playing well or we needed a stop, we’d put T.J. in to hopefully be the difference maker.”
Edwards said he realized during his junior season that he might have an opportunity to play major college football. He noticed that he could make throws and be physical with the best opponents on his team’s schedule. Edwards assumed he would garner college interest to continue his career as a quarterback.
But on his first recruiting visit to Toledo, he remembers coaches talking to him about playing slot receiver. At that point, he thought he might be a better fit on defense. Edwards committed to play linebacker at Western Michigan in June 2013. Six months later, he flipped to Wisconsin to play the same position.
When college recruiters would ask Mertens what position Edwards projected out to in college, he shied away from pigeon-holing him. Instead, he told coaches Edwards could play any position they needed him to play. All along, however, he believed linebacker was Edwards’ most natural position.
“He has a nasty streak in him,” Mertens said. “Watching him hand the ball off and then run 15 yards down the field and make a block for his running back, that’s stuff you don’t see on normal high school quarterback film.”
Edwards took a redshirt season at Wisconsin in 2014 and said he spent the bulk of practice time feeling frantic and simply trying not to make mistakes. He needed to understand simple concepts such as how to correctly fit a run or how offenses might attack Wisconsin’s defense. Edwards credited former Badgers linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter for helping him to better understand how to study film.
His breakthrough moment took place during bowl prep following the regular season, when he began to demonstrate his effectiveness at linebacker. Former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda once went so far as to call Edwards “the MVP” of those developmental practices. By spring ball, he was positioned to be a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
Edwards has been sensational ever since. He has played in 39 games with 38 starts and owns 248 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 7 interceptions and 20 pass breakups. He led the team in tackles his first two seasons and ranks second with 75 tackles this season. Edwards trails Ryan Connelly for the team lead by 5 tackles.
With a strong Orange Bowl performance against Miami on Saturday night, he could become the first Wisconsin player to rank first in tackles in three straight seasons since Pete Monty did it from 1994-96. In addition to his first-team AP All-America honor, Edwards was a runner-up for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker.
“He’s taken it upon himself to really become a tactician at his position,” Badgers outside linebacker Jack Cichy said. “He’s been a three-year starter now, and he’s really been stout those three years. … As time’s gone on, he’s gotten more and more recognition, which I definitely think is deserved.”
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Edwards’ natural instincts, physicality, understanding of defensive concepts and ability to communicate those complexities to teammates on the field are all part of a special package. That level of versatility would make Edwards an attractive prospect if he decides to leave school for the NFL.
“The more you can do, the better in that league,” Leonhard said. “It’s a matchup league. When you’ve got a guy that can be physical in the run game but also play well in pass coverage, that’s extremely valuable. You need players that can play in space at that level. He’s done a great job improving himself every single year. That’s what we ask our guys to do is develop and get better. That’s a testament to his work on where he’s come from his freshman year to where he is now.”
It’s certainly a far cry from where Edwards was when he arrived on campus — and even further from his days as a wannabe golfer. Edwards, however, has few complaints about the way his football career has played out.
“I tell you, though, if I took a couple golf lessons, I think it’d be a wrap,” Edwards said. “Like, I’d be good.”