Athletic LB Edwards transitioning into ‘natural’ position for Badgers
MADISON, Wis. — The craziest aspect of T.J. Edwards’ surge up Wisconsin’s depth chart is not that he’s penciled in as a starting inside linebacker after spring practices despite being just a redshirt freshman. Plenty of young players have excelled before at the college level.
Far fewer, however, have done it the way Edwards has: without ever having played the position before arriving on campus.
"I played quarterback my whole high school career and I played like two or three games of safety," Edwards explained, "so I didn’t actually play any linebacker at all."
Yet here Edwards is, on the cusp of taking over one of the Badgers’ most important defensive posts less than two years out of Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa, Ill.
How has he done it? With a combination of athleticism and intelligence that rivals the best players in the program.
Take, for example, a practice two weeks ago in which Edwards recorded two interceptions of starting quarterback Joel Stave, including one sensational dive at the back of the end zone. He also sacked Stave twice in the same practice. One practice earlier, he sacked backup Bart Houston and stepped in front of a short dump-off for yet another interception.
The fact Edwards constantly put himself in the right position this spring demonstrated his success was more than simple luck.
"I think it’s just the film work," he said. "Coach (Dave) Aranda every day sending us texts like, ‘Hey, let’s come meet. Film today. We’re going to meet tomorrow.’ Film, film. If you know what you’re doing, you can play fast. You don’t have to be the most athletic, the most talented."
Edwards spent the bulk of his high school career as a quarterback and played just three games at safety. In those three games, however, he posted 20 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception, showing how good he could be if he devoted all his energy to that side of the ball.
"No lie, his senior year, our first game of the year, he played I think two defensive snaps and one of them he knocked the opponents’ quarterback out of the game," Lakes Community football coach Luke Mertens said. "The kid didn’t play for three weeks. It was a scenario at the end of the game where we really needed a stop. We’re like, ‘Hey, put T.J. in.’
"The first play, T.J. was playing free safety and he called his own free safety blitz and he erased the quarterback from the game. We’re like, ‘All right, well, T.J. can play defense.’"
Mertens added the natural inclination now is to look back and wonder why he and his staff did not make Edwards a linebacker or a full-time defensive player in high school. But Mertens noted Edwards was the team’s most special player and therefore needed the ball in his hands every play as a quarterback. In Edwards’ career, he threw for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, adding 16 scores on the ground, in leading his team to a 17-3 record over two seasons.
"The guy is the total ‘it’ factor, and that’s why he was our quarterback," Mertens said. "He’s a worker. He loves competition. He’s not afraid of anyone. Our entire team was just drawn to him, which is what you want."
When Edwards opened this spring, there was genuine concern about which players would adequately fill the void left behind by inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, who ranked second and third on the team in total tackles a year ago. Edwards and fellow inside linebacker Leon Jacobs, however, have done enough to quell those fears. During the team’s spring game, Edwards tied for second in total tackles with nine and added a sack. Jacobs finished with eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Edwards, for his part, recognizes he has a long way to go to perfect his craft, noting technique and footwork were areas he needed to improve.
"My other fellow linebacker, Leon Jacobs, he has a great knack of formation recognition, just knowing that stuff and he helps me out a lot," Edwards said. "And I just want to get to that point where I can tell him, ‘Hey, watch out for this. Watch out for that.’ So I’m hoping to get to that point very soon."
Badgers coach Paul Chryst indicated two weeks ago that Edwards was doing far less thinking and far more reacting to plays as they developed. And safety Michael Caputo shared a similar sentiment, pointing out Edwards’ great instincts and the ability to grasp the team’s defensive playbook.
Of course, the fact Edwards didn’t grow up playing the position makes his development all the more impressive — and creates even more optimism for his future.
"He looks like he’s a natural out there," Caputo said. "He looks like he’s been playing it for a while now. I’m definitely not worried about any type of run splitting up the middle. Him and Leon are going to be there to fill it up."
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