2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Inside Linebackers

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Kocorowski

The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.

AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.

Previous installments: Quarterbacks; running backs/fullbacks; wide receivers; tight ends; offensive line; defensive line;

Even without the NFL-bound T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, Wisconsin's inside linebackers rose to the occasion and again produced in typical fashion in 2019. Led by the heart of the team in redshirt senior Chris Orr, this position group helped lead Jim Leonhard's defense back to a Top 10 standing in several major categories last season.

Sophomore Jack Sanborn and Orr finished the year ranked first and second in tackles (80 and 78, respectively). In his final season as a Badger, the latter finished second on the team in sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (14) and quarterback hurries (eight).

Sanborn, a second-year player who worked his way into the two-deep as a freshman, started all 14 games for Wisconsin. In addition to leading the defense in stops this year, he tied for the team lead in interceptions with safety Eric Burrell (three) and ranked third on the team in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (9.0).

Behind them, redshirt junior Mike Maskalunas and true freshman Leo Chenal worked into the two-deep and saw action at times. Maskalunas recorded 16 tackles and two pass breakups in 14 games. For Chenal -- who boasts impressive physical attributes -- he registered 20 stops, two tackles for loss and a sack.

Now with Orr departing, as Edwards and Connelly did after the 2018 campaign, assistant Bob Bostad's group needs players to step up. Like most positions on this team, however, it appears Wisconsin is in reload mode at inside 'backer.

Player Stats

  • Chris Orr (14 games, all starts): 78 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, five pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles
  • Jack Sanborn (14 games, all starts): 78 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, three pass breakups, one forced fumble
  • Leo Chenal (10 games): 20 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery
  • Mike Maskalunas (14 games): 16 tackles, two pass breakups, one fumble recovery

Best Performance

For the inside linebackers themselves, I will look at the 24-15 win over Northwestern Sanborn and Orr combined for 22 tackles (13 and nine, respectively). The latter contributed two sacks on that September afternoon, including forcing a fumble, while having three quarterback hurries. Sanborn also contributed a tackle for loss and pass breakup in the Big Ten West division showdown. 

The Badgers' defense held the Wildcats to just 255 yards, and with the offense floundering for the first time that season, it stepped up in significant fashion to get their second conference win of 2019.

Worst Performance

Like the defensive ends, I'm likely looking at the entirety of Jim Leonhard's unit here. I will say the loss at Ohio State (431 yards allowed, 264 rushing) and road win at Nebraska (493 yards allowed, 273 rushing) showed the defense and its linebackers were not as dominant as they were in the first six games of the season. 

The Badgers nearly allowed two Huskers to go over 100 yards on the ground in their November showdown in Lincoln. That being said, the road loss to Illinois stands out as well. Despite only gaining 315 yards against UW, Lovie Smith's team gashed the defense for some large chunk plays -- something that was uncharacteristic at the time.

Question for 2020: Who Steps Up to Replace Chris Orr's Production at Inside Linebacker?

This question very well may extend to who on the defense will also replace the leadership of Orr, who finishes his career as one of the more memorable Badgers to guide this program. Now, the DeSoto, Tex., native moves on to pursue his NFL journey. 

Sanborn will return for his junior campaign, and he appeared to progress well in his first year starting for Wisconsin in 2019. Now with Orr gone, the Illinois native will have the opportunity to lead this position group.

Who starts alongside him or rotates in will be something to watch as well. Chenal enrolled early last January and showcased his skillsets with physical play and an ability to bring down interceptions during spring ball. He worked his way into the two-deep and found time on the field as a first-year player.

Fellow true freshman and early enrollee, quarterback Graham Mertz, called out how Chenal worked in the film room and is now "sharp."

"When you get that speed with strength and knowledge, that's pretty freaky with Leo," Mertz said on Dec. 30 during Rose Bowl media day.

From the perspective of Chenal's older brother John, a sophomore fullback at Wisconsin, Leo has developed in multiple areas, something he believes will be needed down the road in future seasons.

"He put on about 10 pounds. He passed me up, I think. He's a little taller than me as well," John said on Dec. 28. "He's grown. He's the vocal leader out there. You'll hear other guys say it, too. He's yelling out calls. I just feel like he's matured a lot since he's got here. He's got the instinct. He's got the size. He's got some big shoes to fill in the coming years so I think he's put himself in a good position to do that."

Maskalunas, who walked on to UW's football program, will enter his final year in Madison having seen reps on defense. I anticipate the Illinois native receiving snaps during spring and fall camps as at the very least a key rotational player. 

Despite not finding time on the field, true freshman Maema Njongmeta traveled with the team during a few road games. I spoke with the young 'backer in November for a BadgerBlitz.com feature. He could be a candidate to work into the two-deep as well with a year of seasoning under his belt.

"He's a really, really good driver," Chenal said. "He's always driving to learn, like get every single thing right, and he's gotten a lot better. He just loves to learn and play, and he loves football."

There is also walk-on Tatum Grass, but can 2020 signees Malik Reed and Jordan Turner find time on the field like Chenal did last season and even Orr before them in 2015?