Coming into the season, Jack Cichy was scheduled to be just another rotation player, backing up last year’s returning starters at inside linebacker, sophomore Chris Orr and redshirt sophomore T.J. Edwards.
Seven games into the season, the redshirt junior leads the Badgers in tackles, gaining national recognition as a Midseason All-American by Sports Illustrated magazine before tragically tearing a pectoral muscle against the Iowa Hawkeyes, ending his season.
But how did the backup become so celebrated in such a short amount of time? Is it his work ethic? Is he just that good of an athlete? Is he a film junkie or a gym rat?
Well, when it comes to Cichy, none of those answers would really be wrong. But sometimes the simple answer is the best answer.
“He’s just kind of a guy that makes plays,” Edwards said.
Junior Garret Dooley, another fellow linebacker and backup-turned-starter, thinks it just comes down to being unselfish.
“I think we just have a lot of players who are willing to put it out there for their team and they’re not all in it for themselves,” Dooley said. “Jack and T.J. [Watt] have done a great job making plays when the plays come to them, and that’s why they are nationally recognized. The fact that they are so selfless allows them to play to the best of their abilities.”
As a result of that unselfish play, the Badgers continue to boast one of the best defenses in the nation. It has also helped Wisconsin, and Cichy, have a far more successful season than many expected.
Cichy was born in the small town of Somerset, Wis. It is a typical Midwest settlement on the Apple River, complete with blue-collar factories and plenty of local taverns for the workers to visit after a hard day’s work. It’s a recipe that creates many strong-willed Wisconsin hopefuls, and is part of what makes the walk-on tradition so strong within the state.
Like so many other walk-ons in Wisconsin history, Cichy has proven that sometimes all a player needs is a chance. Opportunities don’t always present themselves in the brutal world of college football, so when you have the stage, you need to shine.
Accordingly, Dooley understands the pressures Cichy feels to perform in the moment.
“The most challenging part is just keeping your head,” Dooley said. “When you go into a game and you’re part of the backup rotation, you know you’re not going to be taking that first snap on defense. It would usually be a couple series before you even get in.”
And with linebackers like junior T.J. Watt, senior Vince Biegel and Edwards, standing out isn’t always easy. But somehow the homegrown substitute was still able to make his presence felt, and his fellow star ‘backers consequently took notice.
“Jack’s been doing a great job. I remember a few times I was like ‘Jeez, Jack is really flying around tonight.’ So it’s awesome to really see him embrace his role and just continue to fly around the ball,” Watt said. “He seems to be around the ball on every play. He’s a great player.”
Edwards, who spends perhaps the most time with Cichy as the other inside linebacker, had nothing but positive things to say about how Cichy approached the starting role this season before his injury.
“He’s stepping up and being a leader for our team, and I think that’s something we need him to do,” Edwards said. “We’re always together watching film making sure we just have little details down, and he does a great job with talking to me about what he’s seeing and vice versa.”
Cichy leads the Badgers with 60 total tackles, including 15 against Ohio State alone, far clear of the next best mark of 44 (Watt). Perhaps even more impressive is the frequency he takes it upon himself to stop the offense on his own.
With his 45 solo stops, he has nearly doubled the second-best of 24 (Watt). Watt himself is a second-team Midseason All-American selection by Sports Illustrated, so Cichy, being that far clear of him statistically, is extremely impressive and makes his season-ending injury all the more disappointing.
Even with all the statistics and recognition, the experience gained is something that will carry on past the confines of this season more than anything. With Biegel, the only member of the group on his last leg of eligibility, the Badgers could possibly return linebackers Cichy, Watt, Edwards, Orr, Dooley, freshman Zack Baun, sophomore Ryan Connelly and Alabama transfer Christian Bell, easily making them one of the most talented and deepest groups in the entire nation.
According to the upperclassmen, that experience within the unit is worth more than just game time and a chance to make their mark. It’s a chance to move the team forward.
“The younger kids like Zack Baun and some of the other freshmen that will be sophomores next year, they have to have someone to look up to and someone to teach them leadership,” Dooley said. “So it’s good to have experience under your belt so you know what it’s like to play in those big-time games, so they can take it to heart.”
Next season it looks like the Badgers’ main issue at the linebacker position will be figuring out how to get everyone on the field. With enough talent to field two entire units, opposing offenses are probably already having nightmares of this formidable squad—with most of their troubles coming from the emerging Cichy.