MADISON, Wis. — Sometime early in training camp, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr launched himself into a pileup on the practice field during to make a tackle. He took a hit to his surgically repaired right knee during the scrum.
Orr got up, felt fine and walked back across the line of scrimmage. It was a moment when Orr said he knew that he was finally over the injury that knocked him out for the 2016 season.
Now, a similar season-ending injury to top linebacker Jack Cichy could thrust Orr back into a starting spot that he lost after he got hurt.
The Badgers’ once-enviable depth at inside linebacker is already being tested. But Wisconsin is confident that Orr and Ryan Connelly can help replace the production expected of Cichy, an energetic senior leader.
“Jack wouldn’t want us to miss a beat,” said leading returning tackler T.J. Edwards, who was supposed to combine with Cichy to form one of the top inside linebacker duos in the country. “We’ll be the same team, just without one of our captains on the field.”
At the least, the defense knows it can play well without Cichy. He missed the last seven games of the season last year with a torn pectoral muscle. Connelly stepped up capably into the starting lineup.
But the loss of Cichy is compounded by the departures of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel , who were each selected in the NFL draft. That’s three proven playmakers that need to be replaced in the linebacking corps.
The Badgers do get Orr back after he missed 2016 following the knee injury suffered on the first defensive snap in the season opener against LSU. After playing 10 games and making six starts as a freshman in 2015, Orr is itching to get back on the field to rejoin Edwards.
“If we really wanted to, we wouldn’t have to say a word and we would know exactly where each other is going to be,” Orr said after practice on Thursday.
He got to know Cichy better while they were rehabbing last year. An opening left by Cichy’s latest injury was not the way that Orr wanted to get more playing time.
At the same time, the 6-foot, 223-pound Orr said that he feels a little faster and quicker this preseason, “which a lot of people won’t be believe coming off a major knee reconstruction. But it’s helped out a lot.”
He said his “football IQ” has increased too after spending last year as an unofficial cheerleader and coach. Orr’s profile page on the Badgers website includes a picture of the injured Orr and Cichy, each wearing headsets, standing on the sideline as if they were calling plays.
His father, Terry, played tight end for the Washington Redskins from 1986-1993. His brother, 25-year-old Zachary Orr, retired from the NFL in January because of a spinal condition. Zach Orr played linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
Cichy’s latest setback gave Chris Orr added perspective to the game, not to mention his own comeback from injury.
“Whether it’s a grind to practice, a grind to work out, or even a walkthrough, a game — it doesn’t matter because you never know when it could be your last snap,” Orr said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how precious the present is until something is taken away from them that matters. You really have to enjoy every day.”