MADISON — Not many knew Ryan Connelly’s name before the University of Wisconsin faced then-No. 5 LSU to open last season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Yet there he was, thrust into a starting role at inside linebacker for the Badgers after Chris Orr tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the first defensive snap and with T.J. Edwards already sidelined with a foot injury.
Connelly surprised even his own teammates that day when he excelled in a seven-tackle effort, but he said he felt ready for the situation.
“Watching the film after the game makes me think I probably wasn’t,” Connelly said. “I had production, but I was out of position a lot.”
Connelly admits to being highly critical of himself, but there’s no doubt the former walk-on’s now even better-equipped to inherit a starting role during another season in which the Badgers have suffered multiple injuries at inside linebacker.
Edwards returned shortly after that LSU game, but Connelly stepped in again when Jack Cichy tore his pectoral muscle in the seventh game of the season at Iowa. This year, Cichy tore his ACL during fall camp, and Orr’s set to miss his second straight game with a left leg injury when Wisconsin hosts Michigan on Saturday.
“You go back to the beginning of last year — if we didn’t have Ryan Connelly, we would have been in a much different situation,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “And it’s no different going on to the next season. You see his confidence grow every time he’s out on that field. He’s trusting what he sees. He plays at a high speed every single week and makes a lot of plays because of it.”
Along with being an highly instinctual player, the speed at which Connelly plays separates himself from many others at his position.
The junior showed that on a number of plays last week against Iowa in what was arguably one of the Badgers’ best defensive performances in program history. He found his way into the backfield often, leading the team with nine tackles, recording a strip-sack of quarterback Nate Stanley that led to Wisconsin’s final touchdown and even nearly tackling Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley for a safety in the second quarter.
“The biggest thing is he plays the game at a different speed than a lot of people,” Leonhard said. “It’s just fun to watch. That means he’s trusting what he sees, and even if he doesn’t trust what he sees, he’s going to make a mistake 1,000 miles an hour.”
Connelly began finding that confidence in his game during spring practices prior to last season. In 2015, former Wiscsonsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda drilled Connelly on where he needed to be on each play. The next season, under Justin Wilcox, he found the freedom to play fast.
“(Aranda) was definitely emphasizing to us, ‘Here’s where you’re supposed to be,’” Connelly said. “And I kind of got that in my head — ‘Oh, I have to be here every play.’ But Wilcox taught us, don’t always rely on your safeties to be there. Make the play yourself. Do your job, obviously, but you can always do more.
“Looking back at it, it’s probably good to have that progression the way it was. … Once you kind of understand where you have to be, then you can kind of let loose and make the plays.”
Connelly has been a handful for opposing offenses this season. He leads the team with 55 tackles despite starting just two games.
Wisconsin offensive linemen have called him one of the more slippery guys to block. Orr said Connelly “can bend his body in ways you wouldn’t think a 6-(foot)-3 guy could,” while Edwards noted that Connelly’s “one of the smartest guys on the field.”
“He’s a huge part of what we do,” Edwards said. “I think early in his career, he was a four-special teamer guy, he was on all phases, and now he’s one of the leaders on our defense. I think it’s just one of those things where he’s worked so hard to get to this point, and he deserves it. We appreciate everything he does.