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linebackers photo 11-10

Linebackers Ryan Connelly, left, and T.J. Edwards carry the Heartland Trophy after UW's 28-17 win at Iowa earlier this season.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Poor Chris Orr.

Now a redshirt junior at the University of Wisconsin, Orr earned a starting job at inside linebacker as a true freshman and showed terrific potential. He was injured early in his sophomore year, however, and has never been able to regain his starting status on a permanent basis.

It’s not that Orr has regressed, it’s simply that the two guys ahead of him — T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — are playing so well the coaches can’t even consider taking them out of the game.

“They’re playing fantastic,” Orr said this week without a hint of bitterness. “I’m proud of those guys. They are two of my closest friends on the team. It’s fun to see how we’ve all evolved and how the position group has grown and gotten some shine.”

Shine, indeed. Over the past 50 years, UW’s inside linebacker group has had tackling machines such as Ken Criter, Dave Lokanc and Dave Crossen, premier run-stuffers such as Pete Monty and Nick Greisen, and elite playmakers such as Chris Borland and Mike Taylor.

Never, however, has UW had two inside linebackers performing at such a consistently high level side by side as Edwards and Connelly, who are doing it for a third consecutive season.

“It’s special right now the way our inside linebackers are playing,” coach Paul Chryst said. “Those two are flying around.”

Edwards and Connelly, a pair of fifth-year seniors, have been the only constants on UW’s young, injury-ravaged defense this season. They’ve held the unit together with their experience, leadership and all-over-the-field playmaking. They will be doubly important in today’s game against Penn State, which features dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley.

It’s hard to imagine any inside linebacker who had a greater career at UW than Borland, an instinctive playmaker who lived on the opponents’ side of the line of scrimmage. However, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard thinks Edwards and Connelly are at least in the discussion with Borland, the Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.

“Borland is as good as it gets in this program and I would put them right up there with him as far as their production and playmaking ability,” Leonhard said. “Borland is one of my all-time favorites. For me to put these guys in that category, it means a lot. We’ve had some really good ones that I think continued to develop after they left Wisconsin. You look at Nick Greisen and what he did in the NFL. You look at Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy, guys that were tremendous linebackers but, to me, were almost scratching the surface here and just continued to get better in the NFL. But at this point of the game, I think they’re as good as we’ve had in this program.”

There is almost nothing UW’s dynamic duo can’t do. Edwards is 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, Connelly is 6-3 and 237 pounds, but on the field they’re almost the same player. They both stuff the run, go sideline to sideline, make plays in the backfield, drop into coverage and lately, rush the passer. Their productivity in terms of sacks, tackles for loss and turnover-producing plays is off the charts.

Other than the four linebacker spots, the defense has been a revolving door due to injuries and it gets younger by the week. Despite the constant turmoil around them, Edwards and Connelly have elevated their games this season. They’re playing so fast that they’re even making plays outside the scheme of the defense.

“Everything’s coming together for them,” Leonhard said. “They have the experience, they have a great understanding of the system and what we ask them to do and they’re playing with a high level of confidence. They’re not playing to fit where they’re supposed to fit. They’re playing to make plays on everything. It’s really fun as a coordinator to watch. They’re fixing a lot of problems, they’re getting everybody lined up, they’re communicating at all levels of the defense and then they’re just playing extremely fast and physical.”

The amazing thing is they’re doing it without an experienced line in front of them, tying up blockers. UW lost three longtime starters at end who graduated after last season and, for the past few games, has been without senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, who is out for the season. Today, three freshmen will be starting on the line.

“Our guys are doing a good job of keeping them clean on some things, but it’s definitely different than it has been in the past for them,” Leonhard said. “We had tremendous experience in front of them, guys that could make their own plays but also understood how and when to keep those linebackers free. They’re having to do a little bit more by themselves in defeating blocks and also making the play. You can’t give them enough credit.”

It helps that the former high school quarterbacks have been together in the middle of UW’s defense for so long.

“I think we just do a good job of knowing where each other is going to be at,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those things where I can feel if he’s going to play fast, I can play off him, or if I’m going to play fast, he can play off me. I think communication’s been really good.”

What sets them apart is the speed at which they are playing. That’s a function of their underrated athleticism and superb play recognition.

“They’re as good of inside linebackers as there are in the country physically, on top of having the experience,” Leonhard said. “They’re playing the game at a tremendous level right now. I think everybody notices that. It’s easy to see. You don’t have to watch very many plays before one of those guys shows up.”

Nobody knows that better than Chris Orr.

Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.

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