On Tuesday Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy announced in a poignant first-person piece on The Players’ Tribune that he’s leaving for the NFL and won’t apply for a medical redshirt that would grant him a sixth year of eligibility. Cichy tore his ACL during preseason practice in August, leaving him to watch from the sidelines as the Badgers went 12–0 in the regular season and won the Big Ten West.
The first time most football fans heard of Cichy was during Wisconsin’s 23–21 win over USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl. Then a redshirt sophomore, the former walk-on pulled off quite the trifecta in the second half, notching sacks of Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler on three consecutive plays. Cichy only had two career sacks going into that game.
A while back, I asked Cichy about that sequence.
“On the first one, we’re in base D and they’re in 21 personnel [two backs, one tight end],” Cichy said. “The tight end was coming to cross protect and I just got around him. Sack.”
Sack No. 2 came on a similar play call, this time with USC in the shotgun: “It’s an A-gap blitz, and I just timed it up perfectly and got a play-action sack.”
Then the finale, with the Trojans already backed up into a third-and-31: “The next one, we were in a mug front. We showed six guys were gonna blitz. Luckily for me, the center [directed the protection] away from me, so I got the free gap. The running back tried cutting me. I shook it off and chased Kessler down from behind. As soon as I got that one, I was winded as all hell.”
Cichy gave a big tip of the hat to Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator at the time, Dave Aranda. “All three were perfect play calls.” He also said Aranda and the Badgers staff proved prophetic in factoring in some circumstance.
“I’d been ejected from the Minnesota game [the Badgers’ last regular season game] for targeting a minute into the second half. Coach Aranda told me, ‘You’re starting the second half and I’m not taking you out.’ Ethan Armstrong, our graduate assistant at the time, told me, ‘You’re gonna have fresh legs. You’re gonna be on a different gear from everyone else.’”
Cichy grew up in Somerset, Wisc., a small town of about 1,200. He was overlooked in the recruiting process as a 6'1", 185-pound high schooler. With no major colleges pursuing him, he was considering Princeton and Holy Cross before then Badgers assistant Bill Busch offered him the chance to walk on at Wisconsin.
The Badgers have a strong track record of turning walk-ons into key contributors, but Cichy told me this summer that didn’t factor much into his decision. “My dad and I talked and I knew that if I got an opportunity that I’d make good on it. I didn’t know if I’d do anything other than special teams. But I’d play some, and whether I’d play a defensive snap or not was irrelevant. I wanted to be the best football player I could be, and if I didn’t go to the highest level, I would’ve always thought, ‘What if?’ I could’ve been an All-American at Holy Cross, but what about the next level?”
The next time I saw him was in warmups an hour before kickoff of the Badgers’ game against Maryland in mid-October. By that point, Cichy had morphed from Badgers captain into Badgers assistant coach. He had a headset on the entire game against Maryland and was often giving tips to his fellow linebackers. “He's gonna find a way to help us win games on Saturdays,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "He’s all in and it’s really cool to see that approach. He cares about the program.”
That attitude sums up about as well as anything why Wisconsin has emerged as a Big Ten powerhouse.