When looking inside No. 8 Wisconsin’s journey to the 2020 Rose Bowl, it’s no surprise that names like Jonathan Taylor and Zack Baun stand out. After all, Taylor’s rushed for more yards than any player in FBS history through his first three seasons and Baun, a finalist for the Butkus Award given to the top linebacker in college football, led the Badgers with 12.5 sacks in 2019.
One name that doesn’t get as much attention as the other two however, but should, is Chris Orr. Orr, a senior inside linebacker, has been key in Wisconsin reaching “The Granddaddy of Them All” for the fourth time in 10 seasons. Alongside Baun, Orr led the Badgers to a school-record 49.0 sacks this season, which ranked third nationally. Orr rose his total tackle numbers from 27 in 2018 to 72 in 2019. His 11.5 sacks tied the sixth-highest single-season total by a Badger.
Orr’s road to such significant improvement from his junior to senior year started last offseason, when he spent hours of individual work focused on bettering his pass rushing. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and the Badger coaching staff took notice of Orr’s improvement and freed him up to become a more active pass rusher this season.
“It’s been a fun season for me, especially being a traditional inside linebacker, being able to rush the passer,” Orr said. “I need to mess with Coach Leonhard to tell him to let me do it some more.”
Leonhard – a member of the Wisconsin coaching staff since 2016 – was always impressed by Orr, but saw major jumps in the All-Big Ten second-teamer’s level of consistency and leadership in 2019.
“He’s always been extremely vocal. He didn’t always do it the right way,” Leonhard said. “He would challenge guys. Him getting an understanding of the right ways to do things. He’s brash, he’s vocal, he has a lot of confidence. He always finds a way to get a chip on his shoulder and that just spills over to the rest of this locker room. When you see a guy develop kind of that in saying the right thing at the right time I think is a very unique skill and he has that with this team.”
A native of DeSoto, Texas, Orr came to Wisconsin in 2015 as a three-star recruit who graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class. He earned a bachelor’s degree in life sciences communication last December and spent this season working toward a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis. Orr enjoyed playing one season with a finished undergraduate degree, and found his time as a graduate student-athlete to be easier.
“I have a lot more free time, so I was able to meet a little bit more, watch a little more film, study a little more, so it’s been fun for me. You don’t have as much like busy work. Just a little more focused on what you like. It’s a little more detailed.”
Orr continued his family’s rich football lineage once he became a Badger. His father, Terry, won two Super Bowls as a tight end for the Washington Redskins. His three brothers – Zach, Terrance and Nick – all played division one college football. Zach became the second Orr to make it to the NFL, playing three seasons for the Baltimore Ravens. So, it’s not a shocker that Chris’s favorite Wisconsin memory has family ties. It came in 2015, when he made his Badger debut in his home state of Texas as Wisconsin battled Alabama inside Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.
“Favorite memory on the field would have to be probably my freshman year. That’s hard. But I would probably say my freshman year going and playing my first game in Dallas. That was pretty special to me, to see my family and stuff.”
The flagship game of Orr’s senior campaign features Wisconsin facing the No. 6 Oregon Ducks, who boast one of the nation’s most experienced offensive lines and are led by dynamic quarterback Justin Herbert. Penei Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior offensive lineman, headlines an Oregon offensive line that holds an FBS-best 218 combined starts.
“Whenever you can compete against great players or a great offense or a great team, it’s definitely exciting,” Orr said. “We definitely look forward to this challenge.”
Personally, Orr’s had a good time preparing for the 2020 Rose Bowl, but New Year’s Day can’t come fast enough.
“You enjoy all the events that you have. It was definitely fun early in the week, but we’re definitely at that point right now where we just want to hit somebody.”
Editor’s Note: Lead photo of Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr appears courtesy of BadgersWire/USA Today
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.