MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin inside linebacker Jack Cichy tended to be the loudest guy on the field.
Whether it was a thundering tackle or a moment of vocal leadership, he had no problem being heard.
“Cichy is a yeller; he’s the out-there guy,” fellow inside linebacker T.J. Edwards told Land of 10 after practice Wednesday.
After the Badgers’ defensive leader suffered a season-ending injury to his pectoral muscle last Saturday against Iowa, the team knew it would take a man of many words — and many actions — to replace him. They may call upon two.
Head coach Paul Chryst tapped Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs as the two most likely to fill the open inside linebacker position. Both have seen sporadic time, and Connelly has the only start between them this season. But a lack of experience does not mean a lack in confidence from teammates. The Wisconsin defense loses what seems like a starter a week and yet maintains its status as one of the nation’s best.
IT TAKES TWO?
|Player (No.)||Ryan Connelly (43)||Leon Jacobs (32)|
|Ht., Wt.||6-3, 235||6-2, 238|
|Hometown||Eden Prairie, Minn.||Santa Clarita, Calif.|
|High School||Eden Prairie||Golden Valley|
|Season stats||12 tackles (7 vs. LSU)||9 tackles, 1 sack|
Connelly likely will get the start against Nebraska (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday at Camp Randall. The sophomore from Eden Prairie, Minn., has played in all seven games this season, with one start against Akron, and is used to jumping in for injured teammates. In fact, he thrives on it.
He replaced Chris Orr when he went down with a season-ending knee injury during the Badgers opening defensive snap against LSU in the season opener and finished the game with seven tackles. But more impressive was how he started it: the first to take down the Tigers’ star running back, Leonard Fournette.
“I think with Ryan, he’s kind of similar to Jack,” Edwards said. “He’s a slippery guy, so he’s a guy who is going to make you miss and make some big plays. I think he had a couple huge plays against LSU that showed his quickness and his athletic ability.”
If practice makes perfect, games create confidence. Connelly said his is high because of those meaningful in-game reps.
“You don’t really get time to get nervous,” Connelly told the media on Wednesday. “You just go out there (and) all you think about is doing a good job.”
Confidence, nerves, whatever Connelly is feeling, Edwards usually can’t tell. He said with the exception of Cichy, the inside linebacker corps is a quiet bunch. The space next to him where Cichy’s big voice — and even bigger mohawk — used to be won’t be filled in the same way. But not necessarily in a lesser way.
Connelly has learned the same hand placement and pad level techniques as Cichy from defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and executed them well enough to earn the spot.
“We’re all kind of reserved,” Edwards said. “But once we get on the field, it kind of flips a switch, and we’re talking all the time. (Connelly and Jacobs) are a little different off the field, so am I, but it’s something you have to have.”
When Jacobs flips the switch, Nebraska likely will take notice.
He “looks like ‘The Hulk,’ ” Edwards said of the 6-foot-2, 238-pound junior, “so he has a good intimidation factor.”
Jacobs’ frame is just part of his resemblance to the Marvel Comics character, according to his high school football coach, Robert Fisher. At Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., Jacobs was a freak athlete, able to do more things better than most in every contest, Fisher said.
It started with basketball. Jacobs grew up on the court and might never have left had he not discovered he was just as skilled on the football field.
“For us, we’d put him at running back and he’d run the ball, run people over, juke them, jump over them,” Fisher said. “Then he would play defense, come off the edge, and no one could block him. He can move.”
And Jacobs is just as much brain as he is brawn, allowing him a very cerebral approach to the game. It’s how he got five tackles against Michigan State, his most productive performance this season.
Jacobs has tried out several positions—outside linebacker, fullback and various roles on special teams—but the mental challenge of inside linebacker has made it his favorite.
“Inside linebacker has the most information you have to acquire,” Jacobs said. “You have to be really smart, and I think all of our linebackers are that smart, so we make it work.”
The mental and physical wheels will have to be turning full speed against Nebraska’s standout quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Last Saturday against Purdue, Armstrong put Nebraska on the board with a 22-yard rushing touchdown and completed 17 of 31 passes for 252 yards to top the Boilermakers, 27-14. The senior from Cibolo, Texas, averages 54.3 yards on the ground each game, which is second on the team and makes him one of the biggest dual-threat quarterback the Badgers have seen this season.
But Wisconsin is used to adjusting on the fly. It has actually become a theme this season. The loss of Cichy is a blow, yes, but so was that of Orr, Edwards, Olive Sagapolu, Vince Biegle, and Natrell Jamerson, for varying stints. Even with the ever-thinning lineup, the Badgers have maintained the nation’s No. 9 overall defense.
“We still have a lot,” Edwards said. “Stuff changes, but we have guys that are going to step up and do the same job. It’s exciting to see who is going to step up. And we always have each other’s backs.”