MADISON, Wis. — The silence between plays at a recent Wisconsin football practice ended abruptly and predictably when a sarcastic scream pierced the air. It drew laughter from half the team and agitation from the others.
The culprit? None other than Badgers inside linebacker Jack Cichy, whose unmistakable taunts in practice had quickly become as commonplace as an official’s whistle on game day. During this particular practice, Wisconsin’s defense had been shutting down the offense, and Cichy wanted to let everyone know just how dominant his group had been.
“Coach, should we just let them score so they can get some morale?” Cichy yelled with glee.
When the offense finally broke its huddle, Cichy piped in again.
“Let’s go, guys,” he said. “Offense needs some morale!”
It was another classic example of Cichy being Cichy, a quintessential alpha dog whose hard work and rise from walk-on to scholarship player made him one of the best leaders on the team. The fact that he also was the best inside linebacker on a unit stacked with talent didn’t hurt, either.
But Cichy’s voice — at least on the field — will not be present in the same capacity moving forward. Wisconsin announced on Thursday that Cichy would miss the entire season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during practice Tuesday.
We don’t know whether Cichy, a redshirt senior, will earn another year of eligibility from the NCAA. Cichy used his redshirt year after his freshman season back in 2014, and school officials noted Thursday it was too early to determine the next step. If this is indeed the end for Cichy, it is an awful way for him to finish his college career.
To say it is a devastating blow to a Wisconsin team on a quest for a Big Ten championship and potential College Football Playoff opportunity would be an understatement. According to Pro Football Focus, Cichy graded as the second-best returning inside linebacker in the country, behind only Louisville’s Stacy Thomas. And he was almost certain to have a monster season.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) August 10, 2017
Cichy arrived as a walk-on in 2013 from Somerset, Wis., and was awarded a scholarship in 2015. His passion and hard work allowed him to vault into one of the most vital components to the defense. His most famous sequence highlighted all his best traits, when he recorded three sacks on three consecutive plays during Wisconsin’s victory against USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, briefly earning him the moniker “Three-sack Jack.”
Despite missing seven games last season with a torn pectoral muscle, Cichy still ranked tied for fourth on the team with 60 tackles and added 7 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.
But it was Cichy’s vocal leadership that was truly memorable to teammates who respected the manner in which he carried himself.
“He’s earned the right to always yell,” Badgers running back Chris James said last week. “But he’s doing all that because he loves the sport. He loves football and you can tell that’s not fake. That’s not fake effort. That’s not fake vocal leadership. That’s because that’s actually him.
“He’s a little nuts, but that’s someone that you want on your team as well. Someone who will tell you to shut up, get your stuff together. And also pick this stuff up. That’s someone who you need.”
Even during a brief red zone drill during practice Tuesday, Cichy was in the ear of his defensive teammates. They had surrendered a touchdown on the first drive, and Cichy wasn’t pleased with the effort from his teammates. Badgers outside linebacker Leon Jacobs recalled Cichy constructively criticizing them — “rallying the troops,” Jacobs would say. Wisconsin’s defense did not surrender a red zone touchdown the rest of the drill.
Of course, Cichy’s presence will not disappear entirely. He would never allow it, and the Badgers will value his input. Cichy has experience handling adversity from injury while maintaining his resolve to help the team. Last season, Cichy’s pectoral tendon tore off the bone Oct. 22 against Iowa and required reattachment surgery. He missed the team’s final seven games but continued to assist teammates in the film room and on the sideline during games, pointing out reads he saw on the field.
Cichy posted a message on social media through Wisconsin’s official football Twitter account on Thursday, which indicated that he isn’t out of fight yet.
“As I learned the news of my injury and the end of my season, I couldn’t help but reflect,” he said. “I wanna thank this university and this great state for letting a Wisconsin boy come live out his dreams. From walk-on to captain, it’s been an unreal experience. I don’t know exactly what’s in store next, but I know I’m not done with football. No matter what I felt, a thanks was in order. We’re gonna keep fighting and we have a helluva season coming.”
If there is a silver lining here, it’s that perhaps no position group in the country is better equipped to handle an injury to a star player than Wisconsin’s inside linebackers. Much of the talk throughout the offseason and into fall camp focused on how, exactly, Wisconsin would make room for four players worthy of starting. Cichy and T.J. Edwards began fall camp with the first-team defense, while Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly served as backups. All have significant starting experience.
Edwards will remain one of the inside linebacker starters. He led the Badgers with 89 tackles last season and added 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and 3 interceptions. Edwards has paced Wisconsin in tackles in each of the past two seasons and can become the first to do so in three consecutive seasons since Pete Monty from 1994-96.
Connelly, who has missed the last few practices with an injury to his left leg, has played in 26 games and made eight starts last season. During an overtime victory against Nebraska, Connelly recorded a career-high 11 tackles with 2 tackles for loss and 2 pass breakups to earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Orr has played in 11 games with seven starts. He was talented enough to step into a starting role as a true freshman in 2015, when he ranked sixth on the team with 46 tackles. Last season, Orr began as a starter before sustaining a torn right ACL on Wisconsin’s first defensive series in the opener against LSU. Orr took Cichy’s place with the first-team defense during practice on Thursday.
Wisconsin’s fourth inside linebacker spot will be a battle between Mike Maskalunas, Griffin Grady and Arrington Farrar. Maskalunas and Grady earned high praise from Badgers coach Paul Chryst in the spring. Farrar moved from safety to inside linebacker in the spring but has played in 26 career games.
Cichy will fight like heck to make sure there is no drop-off in production without him. This is not the way Cichy envisioned his season transpiring, but his voice certainly won’t be far from the field. He wouldn’t have it any other way.