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T.J. Edwards’ return boosts inexperienced Badgers defense

August 31, 2018

As the University of Wisconsin prepared to face Nebraska in Week 6 of the 2015 season, then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda called for the same play to be run over and over during practice.

The Badgers’ offensive scout team mimicked one of Nebraska’s unfamiliar route concepts, and UW’s defense kept failing to properly contain it. After about the sixth time, inside linebacker Chris Orr recalls, frustration set in, leading Orr and fellow freshman T.J. Edwards to join their teammates in yelling things like, “Come on, bro! Get the play right!”

Nearly a dozen tries passed before Aranda realized his criticism needed to become more pointed.

“Coach Aranda finally came up to (Edwards and I) and said, ‘That’s us. That’s the route that you’re supposed to have,’” Orr said. “We were adamant that we were doing the right thing, and we weren’t at all. We were sitting here yelling at people. ... We never truly knew what was really going on (our freshman year).”

UW’s inside linebacker position has come a long way since 2015, and arguably no player developed more than Edwards.

Now entering his fourth year as a starter, Edwards not only fulfills his role on the field like clockwork, but he knows the responsibilities of everyone around him, too. As the fourth-ranked Badgers break in seven new first-team players against Western Kentucky on Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium, the 2017 All-American could be vital to sustaining the success of a defense that’s built a reputation as one of the nation’s best.

In his final year with the Badgers, Edwards wants to evolve his game one step further — becoming the type of leader and mentor one would expect from a player of his stature and experience.

“Normally I just kind of stay in my cylinder and put my head down and work,” Edwards said. “But I really need to make sure that if (younger players) have any questions, I can answer them. ... Just being able to talk to them, let them hear my voice more.

“It’s not really my thing too much ... but I’m going to try something a little different.”

One more year

Edwards couldn’t pick one specific reason why he delayed a shot at the NFL to return for his senior season.

He wanted to develop more as a leader, but he also couldn’t shake the bad taste of some of the Badgers’ biggest losses in recent seasons. Edwards said he “wanted to win big-time games” that he’s failed to win thus far during his UW career. Most notably, the Badgers lost the last two Big Ten Championship games in gut-wrenching fashion.

“It’s definitely something that sticks with you,” Edwards said. “It’s not something you forget about.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for Edwards’ return, though, is that some at the next level, including the NFL Draft Advisory Board, told him to do so.

Edwards received a return-to-school grade from the board and said in December that some questioned whether he possessed the speed to succeed at the next level.

Both Orr and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Edwards is faster and more athletic than he’s given credit for. As an inside linebacker in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme, Edwards doesn’t always find opportunities to open up and put the full range of his speed on display.

“A lot of the stuff we do, he’s not in that position,” Leonhard said. “So it’s not like you see that show up over and over and over again on tape, but he’s capable. He’s spent a lot of time over the last couple years really developing that and continuing to push knowing that he has the physical side, he has the intelligence. He knows this scheme inside and out, so he was just able to fine-tune his body and just continue to push and become a better player.”

Edwards does have proven versatility. He’s led the Badgers in tackles two of the past three seasons while also excelling in coverage, tying for the team lead with four interceptions in 2017 to go along with seven pass breakups.

Leonhard said Edwards’ natural skills in coverage are difficult talents to coach, and he no longer needs more than one try to recognize what’s coming at him from the other side of the ball.

“I’ve played with a lot of great linebackers, and he has a lot of those traits (to succeed in the NFL),” said Leonhard, who played safety in the NFL for 10 years. “He’s a high-impact player week in and week out, and he’s been that way for four years. I’m excited for this season, and I’m excited for his career beyond Wisconsin.”

Edwards said he took the return-to-school grade with a grain of salt but felt staying one more season in Madison could help him improve pieces of his game and finish this season a better player than he was a year earlier.

Entering Friday’s opener, though, he’s not focusing on the NFL or even the elusive Big Ten title that he desperately wants to capture in his final year.

UW first needs to focus on starting the season strong and grooming its young and inexperienced defense to match the standard set over the past few years. Edwards may help smooth that transition as much as anyone.

“T.J.’s been playing longer than all of us. He’s the true vet, really,” senior safety D’Cota Dixon said. “(His return) definitely boosted our morale and our confidence in one another. I’m much more comfortable as a safety with him in front of me. It’s a huge boost for us all.”

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