Ex-Badgers LB Connelly hopes reaction time stands out at draft

Ryan Connelly was watching NFL games as a junior when he started to notice something. The Wisconsin linebacker saw players he had went against in college as well as former teammates on the field.

Thinking about how far his game had come and where it could progress over the next year or so, for the first time Connelly thought to himself, “I could be in the same spot they were. So I think that’s when I kind of started to believe in myself that I could do it.”

That notion certainly was a far cry from when he first stepped on campus as a walk-on in 2014. A high school quarterback in a run-oriented offense in Eden Prairie, Minn., Connelly had no Division 1 offers to play football before getting the opportunity at Wisconsin.

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“Back then I guess I was just more worried about whether I could even play special teams or even get on defense here first before I could even think about playing in the NFL,” Connelly said.

It didn’t take long for Connelly to earn a scholarship (before his redshirt freshman season) and make an impact on the field, despite never having played linebacker before and barely even on defense, having played sparingly as a defensive end.

After becoming a special teams contributor in 2015, Connelly started eight games at inside linebacker in 2016 and finished with 59 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four passes defensed and an interception. He followed that up with a team-high 88 tackles, 11 TFL, three sacks, two PD, an interception and a forced fumbled in 2017, despite starting just four of 16 games.

As a senior, Connelly started 12 games, recording 89 tackles, 10 TFL, three sacks, one PD and one FF and was named a to third-team All-Big Ten. Those numbers are pretty good, but even more impressive when you consider Connelly was playing all season through a core muscle injury which eventually resulted in tearing the ab muscle off his pubic bone.

Connelly said running around a football field wasn’t really the issue; he could play through the pain of that. It was the “dull ache” he started to get when he was just laying around at home in bed. He found out the reason for the pain after going to Philadelphia for an MRI for what he once thought was just a strain. When he got the news of the tear, he thought, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense.”

Connelly would miss out playing in Wisconsin’s final game, the Pinstripe Bowl against Miami, and had to skip out on the East-West Shrine Game, for which he had an invitation to attend. Instead, he concentrated on getting ready for the NFL combine, Pro Day and the draft.

At the combine, Connelly thought he did well, which included a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash and a vertical jump of 34 1/2 inches. On the latter, Connelly tied in his result with a fundraiser involving his mother, who last November learned she had lung cancer (Connelly said his mom is doing “really well” and her last treatment will be a week after the draft). He ended up raising over $7,000 for the American Lung Association through PledgeIt.Org.

All the testing and meetings at the combine took its toll on Connelly by the end (“What I tell people is what you see on TV on Day 5 is like 5% of what the combine is”), which is why he re-did the shuttle at Wisconsin’s Pro Day, and he ended up posting a much better time.

But it isn’t the numbers where Connelly necessarily wants NFL scouts to be looking.

“The main thing I try to tell teams is something that kind of shows up on film: I play downhill fast,” Connelly said. “I contribute that to being able to read and react quickly.”

To illustrate his point, Connelly noted that a player might run .2 seconds faster than him in the 40, but his read-and-react time is .5 seconds faster. So while the 40 time might look all nice and splashy, it’s Connelly who would be making the play quicker.

“That’s something I try to convey to teams and is one of my strengths,” he said.

Beyond at Pro Day, Connelly had an opportunity to talk to a handful of teams. He said he’s either worked out for or visited the Giants, Jets, Packers, Saints, Steelers, Titans and Vikings. While Connelly played in a 3-4 defense at Wisconsin, there’s a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 teams with whom he’s met.

“I believe I can play in either defense because of playing WILL [weakside inside linebacker] the past couple of years it translates to both,” Connelly said.

Connelly said his agent hasn’t given any indication of if or when he might be drafted. Connelly said he’s trying to not worry about it, but unlike most players who say they just want an opportunity to compete, he isn’t shy to say his goal is to be taken on Day 3.

“I’d like to get drafted and make a team. Being a walk-on, it’d be nice to get drafted and not have to earn a spot again,” Connelly said “But if I do go undrafted and have to make a team I’m confident I can do that.”

Drafted or undrafted, Connelly knows his security on an NFL roster is going to be by being able to contribute on special teams. If he’s able to do that, it opens the door for more opportunities.

“If you can contribute on special teams, you’ll be on the active roster, and if you’re on the active roster and one of the linebackers go down, you’re in,” Connelly said. “So, you can be a great linebacker but if you don’t contribute on special teams you’re never going to get an opportunity. I just have to make sure I’m focused on at the next level.”

With visits behind him, all Connelly can do now is wait for the draft, and particularly Saturday, which is Day 3, rounds 4-7. He’ll be spending the day at home with family. His brother, whose 28th birthday is Sunday, will be there, as will his mother, who also has a date countdown of her own.

Even if Connelly doesn’t get drafted, there will be plenty to celebrate. But then his real work will begin.