PROVO, Utah — T.J. Edwards’ game days often begin with an unwanted jolt of high-volume music around 6 a.m. The culprit, unsurprisingly, is always roommate and fellow University of Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Orr, who’s already wide awake and bouncing around the hotel room.
Edwards’ first thought? “Bro, you’ve got to chill.” But this illustrates what the Badgers love about the sophomore, too. He’s the first one dancing in the locker room after a victory and the one talking about Popeyes chicken during the 15th period of practice.
He’s also the one, even when limping around on crutches after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last season, who never fails to inject an energetic atmosphere whenever UW needs it.
“It’s sometimes unwanted,” Edwards said, joking, “but he definitely brings some awesome juice when we need it.
“Shoot, I’d give him a week (after the injury) and he was right back on the field, crutching around and laughing, joking around and being who he is to try to bring whatever he could to the team. It’s a devastating injury, and he did such a good job of being positive the whole time.”
Orr made quite a positive impact on the field for the Badgers the past two weeks in his first game action since the injury, which he sustained on the first defensive snap of last season.
In his first start of the year last week against Florida Atlantic, he recorded a game-high eight tackles (six solo) and a sack. Through two games, he leads UW with 15 tackles.
And the Badgers will certainly need him today when they face BYU, a team that despite its recent offensive struggles will likely attempt to establish a physical, downhill rushing attack at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
After a rehab that lasted roughly nine months, Orr’s up for any challenge.
“Watching practice every day and watching the games. … I think that was the hardest part, just sitting there watching,” Orr said. “I didn’t play last year, so I’ve got all this pent-up energy.”
Orr did much more last season than hopelessly watch his team carry on without him, though.
He said he watched film with former Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox every day. Wilcox even gave him assignments, leaning on Orr to help pick up tendencies of opposing offenses.
Orr also sat in on meetings of every position group on the team, allowing him to gather tips on how to play his own position and see the game from different perspectives. He learned about blocking techniques of offensive linemen, how to better disrupt particular run plays and much more.
“I think he’s a smart player,” UW inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said. “He gets it. He gets the big picture, what we’re trying to do. I think he understands a little bit more about offense than guys typically do, about what they’re trying to do on the other side of the ball.”
Orr turned a nightmare into a yearlong mission to improve his football IQ and make sure he made a full recovery by the time fall camp began.
Orr said he hasn’t played with any hesitancy, maintains full confidence in his knee and even gained speed and explosiveness during the rehab process. He referenced former Washington wide receiver John Ross, who tore his ACL in college before running a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine this year.
“People don’t even know about that. It actually does help out a lot,” Orr said. “When I first got the news, I was of course sad and heartbroken for a little while. But then I just thought to myself, ‘Alright, well there’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s not going to help you sitting here even for another 10 seconds worrying about it.’ So then I thought about how I could turn this into a positive thing.”
Orr’s ability to make a full recovery proved crucial for UW this season when senior inside linebacker Jack Cichy tore his ACL during fall camp.
It instantly opened the door for Orr to take a heavy load of snaps from the first game of the season, but he’s also replacing much of what Cichy provided the Badgers in on-field leadership. Cichy had what Bostad calls “verbal confidence” and made many of UW’s defensive checks when on the field last year.
Orr’s offseason studying now has him better-equipped to take that role.
While Orr jokes around as much as anyone, his fast food interests aren’t the only conversations he’s having on the field.
“Some kids don’t know when to turn it off and when to turn it on when they have Chris’ personality,” said Todd Peterman, Orr’s coach at DeSoto High. “He’s always understood that, even as a young player. He understands when the smiles come off the face and the work begins.
“When kids need to be loose and things are going a certain way, he can loosen them up, but yet he understands how to tighten them down when he needs to. That’s part of being a great leader.”
Orr’s mental and physical improvement in the offseason did not come at the expense of a year of eligibility. Orr played as a true freshman in 2015. Since he participated in just one game last season, he was granted a medical hardship waiver and is now a redshirt sophomore rather than a junior.
With the grueling months of rehab behind him, Orr’s now reaping the benefits of the past year.
“I think it could definitely end up being a positive thing — helping my IQ, learning the playbook even more, giving me more time to focus on my body,” Orr said. “I feel extremely comfortable, just comfortable in knowing that I know exactly what everybody’s supposed to do, exactly how everything should fit up.
“I think I’m way better than I would have been last year.”