Preview: Badgers depth at linebacker to be tested
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s once-enviable depth at inside linebacker will quickly be tested.
The loss of Jack Cichy to a season-ending right knee injury deals a defensive blow to a team with designs on another trip to the Big Ten title game.
“You hate it for Jack,” coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s one of the leaders of our team and I know he’ll be a big part of what we do moving forward this season.”
Cichy tore the anterior cruciate ligament at practice on Tuesday, though the extent of the injury was not known until Thursday. He was scheduled to undergo surgery on Friday.
The team captain brought an athletic and energetic presence to the field. The former walk-on was having a breakout campaign last year with 60 tackles in seven games before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury on Oct. 22 against Iowa.
Often smiling, Cichy had a fun-loving personality off the field.
“He’s enjoying himself. It doesn’t feel like work,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Wednesday. “He fits that mold of keeping it light, getting people motivated. It’s fun to watch.”
Either Ryan Connelly or Chris Orr, who are both talented enough to start on many other teams, will likely step up to replace Cichy alongside T.J. Edwards . Orr missed last season with an ACL injury, while Connelly filled in last year after Cichy got hurt. Connelly has missed the last couple days of practice with a left leg injury.
It is unclear if Cichy, a fifth-year senior, will apply for a medical hardship for a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
“From walk-on to captain, it’s been an unreal experience. I don’t know exactly what’s in store next, but I do know I’m not done with football,” Cichy posted on Twitter .
There is still plenty of talent on defense all over the defense. But Wisconsin lost a leader when Cichy went down.
Other notes and things to watch for from the Badgers:
Leonhard is the third defensive coordinator in three years. But Leonhard, who used to play for the Badgers, looks like a long-term fixture. Chryst, an offensive-minded coach, promoted Leonhard after just one year as a college assistant, with Leonhard having overseen the strong secondary last season.
“I always loved that game inside-the-game,” said Leonhard, a former Wisconsin player who also had a 10-year NFL career. “As a coordinator, that’s the job … It’s fun coming out here and going against Coach Chryst every day.”
Carries are up for grabs at Wisconsin, and with junior transfer Chris James and returning sophomore Bradrick Shaw in the mix for the starting job.
Shaw ran for 457 yards and five touchdowns with 88 carries last season, including 15 carries for 62 yards in the Cotton Bowl. Taiwan Deal is also back, hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued sophomore campaign. Rachid Ibrahim, a transfer from Pittsburgh, may also figure prominently in the backfield after missing his previous two seasons with the Panthers because of a torn Achilles tendon.
Then there’s James, another transfer from Pitt, where Chryst was once the head coach. James, a 5-foot-10, 219-pound junior, for 437 yards and four scores on 87 carries as a freshman. His workload decreased in 2015, after Chryst left, when he ran for 253 yards on 56 carries.
Unlike running back, the starting quarterback job has been claimed since spring ball. Alex Hornibrook is the unquestioned starter after taking over the role last September as a freshman. Receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli form a strong one-two receiving combination for Hornibrook. The 6-foot-6, 248-pound Fumagalli is an athletic senior with skills likely to open the eyes of NFL scouts. He had a breakout game at the Cotton Bowl with six catches for 83 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. The sure-handed Peavy has also burned defenses with his ability to break out for big gains on jet sweeps .
At BYU, Sept. 16; at Nebraska, Oct. 7; Iowa, Nov. 11; Michigan Nov. 18; at Minnesota, Nov. 25. The opener comes against Utah State on Sept. 1.
10-2, though Wisconsin’s status as a Big Ten West favorite took a hit with the injury to Cichy.