Before the season started, it seemed clear that Wisconsin’s linebacker corps would be the strength, not just of the defense, but of the entire team. While that has been true thus far, it hasn’t been because of the same high-profile players many expected.
Chris Orr went down for the season in the first game of the year. Vince Biegel missed the Badgers’ two biggest matchups. Jack Cichy will miss the final five regular season games and any postseason games Wisconsin plays.
Despite all that, the linebackers have been the team’s most solid unit, and much of that falls squarely on the shoulders of two players that were essentially nameless before the season: Ryan Connelly and Garret Dooley.
The junior Dooley and redshirt sophomore Connelly played in a handful of games last year, mostly on special teams, and before the season, neither expected their situation to change.
“I knew I was going to be a four-phase special team guy,” Dooley said. “I was hoping that if I played well enough I’d be able to get a couple more snaps, but as much as I’m getting right now? I definitely didn’t think of that.”
Against LSU, when Orr went down on the first play and with T.J. Edwards already sitting out, the Badgers had nowhere else to look, so Connelly went in and played nearly every snap for the rest of the game. He recorded seven tackles in that game, nearly half of his 15 over the entire 2015 campaign.
When Edwards returned a few weeks later, Connelly quietly returned to the sidelines, coming in for a play here and there, much like last year. When Cichy went down, though, he was thrown back into a starting role. Despite Cichy’s flashy dominance on the field, Connelly wanted to do something different.
“The biggest thing I told myself was not to go out and try to be Jack Cichy, because that’s not necessarily my style of play,” Connelly said. “I just want to be myself and allow the great players around me to make plays and just do my job.”
And that goal of being himself worked: He racked up 11 tackles and a pair of pass breakups in his first game replacing Cichy against Nebraska, earning Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week Honors to boot. Since then, he has continued to play well, including snagging an interception against Illinois.
Meanwhile, in the first few games, Dooley saw a handful of snaps per game as a part of a rotation that mostly highlighted Biegel and T.J. Watt, stars receiving national attention, so it makes sense that he was often overlooked. Once Biegel underwent foot surgery, however, Dooley had to shoulder more of the load.
In his first career start against Michigan, he made seven tackles, including a sack, and helped set the tone for a defense that held one of the top teams in the nation to only 14 points. He didn’t play quite as well against Ohio State, but well enough to essentially double his snaps per game from before Biegel went down.
The way these two have stepped up is emblematic of a coach-speak cliché: the “next-man-up” mentality. The idea is that if a team is properly coached, players coming in off the bench will be good enough to sufficiently replace the starters, and they’ll know just how important their play is to the team’s success. Despite constantly being parroted by players and coaches whenever a teammate goes down with injury, it’s something that this defense takes pride in.
“I think as a defense, it’s that ‘next-man-up’ mentality no matter what position it is. The coaches have trust in us, and we have trust in them that no matter who’s on the field they can make plays and go out there and not have a drop off for this team,” Dooley said.
A part of this falls on team leaders like Cichy and Biegel, but they don’t want to take anything away from the play of the players replacing them.
“That’s not a credit to me, that’s a credit to those young men. I don’t want to take credit for what they’ve done,” Biegel said. “Obviously I’ve tried to set a standard for our linebackers; we try to push each other in the offseason and so forth, but again, it goes back to the individual.”
As the Badgers continue their hunt for Indianapolis and beyond, their nationally heralded defense, and its star linebackers Watt and Biegel, will continue to be praised. But neither fans nor opposing teams should overlook the guys that go to work when the big names need a break.