MADISON, Wis. — The most difficult part of missing last season with a torn ACL in his right knee wasn’t the physical toll that rehab took on Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr. Instead, the mental side of the injury played tricks on him as loneliness crept in while his friends and brothers graced the field.
“Watching was the hardest,” Orr said. “You’re there for your teammates. You want to encourage everybody, help out as much as you can, but it’s just sitting there watching practice every day and watching the games. You get so excited for the game, but then you realize that you’re not playing.”
Orr sustained the injury on the first play of Wisconsin’s first defensive series in the season opener against LSU on Sept. 3, 2016. He didn’t appear in a game again until nearly a full year later when Wisconsin opened its 2017 season against Utah State on Sept. 1.
All that time away provided the upbeat Orr with an even greater appreciation for the sport. Now that the opportunity for his redshirt sophomore season has arrived, he isn’t taking it for granted.
“I love this game to death,” Orr said. “I’ve been playing it for as long as I can remember. It was taken away from me. I was heartbroken. So it means everything to be back out there.”
Through two games, Orr certainly appears to be playing like a man making up for lost time. He leads the team with 15 total tackles and earned his first start since the injury last Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
In that game, Orr finished with a team-high 8 tackles to go with his first career sack. The sack took place on a third-and-3 in the first quarter and forced a Florida Atlantic punt that led to Wisconsin’s second touchdown. The 8 tackles represented his most since he registered 8 as a freshman against Iowa on Oct. 3, 2015.
“I think he’s been pretty phenomenal the past two games after the torn ACL,” Badgers outside linebacker Leon Jacobs said. “He’s everywhere, and you can really hear him. He’s been a good leader for us.”
Orr’s greatest attribute on the field, as many of his teammates can attest, is not simply his playmaking ability. He is generally the loudest player on Wisconsin’s defense, riling up teammates and providing necessary vocal leadership. And perhaps sometimes even unnecessary vocal leadership.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to be like, ‘Shut up,’ ” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “It has nothing to do with the game. He’s talking all the time. So it’s never going to be quiet when he’s out there, which is good. Which I think we need. He does bring a lot of energy. He’s always bouncing around and jumping around. That’s just how Chris is, and we expect it from him.”
Orr’s presence has been particularly important early this season because fifth-year senior Jack Cichy sustained a season-ending right ACL tear during fall camp. Cichy and Edwards were poised to open the season as starters, while Orr and Ryan Connelly would serve as backups. Orr and Connelly have each started one game thus far, and those three players will take the bulk of the reps this season at inside linebacker. Edwards is second on the team with 13 tackles, and Connelly is tied for fifth with 8 tackles.
Orr noted he felt an even greater responsibility to lead with Cichy out. But there is added motivation for him this season because he wants to represent his older brother, Zach, a former Baltimore Ravens linebacker who retired from the NFL in January at age 24 due to a congenital neck/spine condition. Chris changed his number from 50 to 54 this offseason to honor Zach, who wore 54 in the pros.
“I wasn’t able to play last year, so I’ve got all this pent-up energy,” Chris Orr said. “And also with my brother not playing, it’s just more passion for me. There’s a difference in a guy leading on the field and then from the sideline. I try to just keep the energy up all game.”
Badgers coach Paul Chryst has seen the ways in which that passion has manifested on the field early this season and called Orr’s presence “infectious.” Teammates who have witnessed it on the field see the same thing.
“You see he’s pumped up,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “We need that energy. I feel like with me and him on the field, that’s just a good mix of energy. He’ll do a dance on the field and I’ll do it back. It’s fun having him out there.”
Orr came on strong as a freshman in 2015 and took advantage of an opportunity against Troy after starting inside linebacker Leon Jacobs was ejected for a targeting call. Orr registered a career-high 14 tackles, earned his first college start the following week against Hawaii and finished the season with 10 games played and six starts. He was all set for an even better sophomore season when his right leg buckled against LSU.
During the months that followed, Orr became an even greater student of the game, which has helped him start the 2017 season with a flurry. He said he spent last season breaking down film with coaches and sitting in on several position meetings for different units. He met with former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox for 1-on-1 sessions in which he would pick his brain about how certain offensive schemes would attack Wisconsin’s defense and why Wilcox installed packages for particular games.
If not for the injury, Orr never would have found the time to learn football in the same way. And he hopes the worst year of his football career can lead to his best.
“I think I’m way better than I would have been last year just because on the football IQ level,” Orr said. “I don’t think a lot of people think about how smart you have to be to play this game. My football IQ increased tremendously from last year, so it definitely made me a better player.”