BadgerBlitz - Wisconsin's "Death Row" works to continue legacy of inside linebackers
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Wisconsin's "Death Row" works to continue legacy of inside linebackers

On a 4th-and-3 from the South Florida 39-yard line, junior Spencer Shrader reeled in a long snap in punt formation and proceeded to run to his right. At that time, Wisconsin held a commanding 35-point lead against USF more than halfway through the third quarter, and the specialist sprinted towards the sideline and yard marker with some trickery in hopes of moving the chains.

But there was redshirt junior Mike Maskalunas, who accelerated and met Shrader near that very sideline before the first-down marker in a collision that some could describe as de-cleating. Wisconsin took over on downs and proceeded to finish with a 49-0 victory down in Tampa.

“Oh man, I was running up to him,” inside linebacker Chris Orr said. “I was telling him he caught a body. We call our little position group, ‘Death Row.’ Got a catch a body to get in, and he’s stamping himself right now so everybody else has to catch up to him. I was excited.”

Wait, what's "Death Row?"

Wisconsin inside linebackers Chris Orr (54) and Jack Sanborn (57)
Wisconsin inside linebackers Chris Orr (54) and Jack Sanborn (57) (Darren Lee Photography)

Apparently, that is the nickname of Wisconsin’s inside linebackers, an identity of the group that dates back before this season. Speaking with Orr about the subject on Sept. 2 and 16, he noted the presence of the ‘backers not just on the defense but all four special teams units -- kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage and punt return -- and they want to set the tone of each game.

“We feel like we’re the soul of this defense,” Orr said. “We feel like the defense is truly the soul of the team, so we feel like we need to be the nasty, dynamic, dominating group, so that’s how we came up with that.”

Before “Death Row,” as former UW standout and current New York Giant Ryan Connelly recalled, both the inside and outside linebacker groups combined to form the “Chevy Bad Boyz” during Connelly’s true freshman season. That collection of Badgers included Joe Schobert, Marcus Trotter, Vince Biegel, among others.

“They were a bunch of Wisconsin guys, and they like Chevy trucks, and they were just being funny,” Connelly told BadgerBlitz.com on Thursday night. “I think that’s kind of something we piggy-backed off of in a little ways where we were just kind of being funny by nicknaming us.

“At the same time, it’s a point of pride in the room and whether it be corny nickname or not, you take pride about being one of them.”

Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Orr (54)
Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Orr (54) (Darren Lee Photography)

According to Maskalunas, Orr came up with the name, and it represents the “mentality of playing really physical, hitting really hard and just being mean.”

“Everytime you go out there and you play inside linebacker and you’re a part of 'Death Row,'” Maskalunas said, “you want to make sure you keep that standard of toughness and grit, so that’s where that kind of came from.”

How does one become a part of 'Death Row' with the inside linebackers? Orr, who stated he has “been stamped since we first started in 2017,” laid out the criteria earlier this month. There are no decals or actual physical stamps, but everyone inside the position group has to approve.

A big hit, a big play like a pick-six, playing “physical and nasty,” or maybe “not something crazy that people can see, even de-cleating an o-lineman,” could get an inside linebacker “stamped in.”

True freshman Leo Chenal believes he first learned about the moniker when he first arrived at UW, but also quickly realized it has to be earned.

“Probably right when I first got here because every time we’d break it down, ‘Death Row on three. 1-2-3, Death Row!’” Chenal said on Sept. 16. “Then I tried saying it once, and everyone just looked at me, ‘What are you doing?’

“I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ So from then on, I had to say just inside linebackers when they were saying ‘Death Row.’ It’s just all about earning the respect and just establishing yourself as a reliable player.”

For what it’s worth, Orr believes Chenal is “close to being truly solidified,” though the elder ‘backer wants the first-year player to make one splash play.

“I really want him to get a big hit on a kickoff,” Orr said.

Wisconsin inside linebackers Mike Maskalunas (58) and Leo Chenal (45)
Wisconsin inside linebackers Mike Maskalunas (58) and Leo Chenal (45) (Darren Lee Photography)

So far through two games, the inside linebackers have left an impression on Wisconsin as the team prepares for a Big Ten showdown against No. 11 Michigan inside Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday (11 a.m., FOX). Four of Wisconsin’s five leading tacklers early this season come from position coach Bob Bostad’s room.

Maskalunas leads the team with 10, while Chenal and Orr are right behind him with nine and eight stops, respectively. Jack Sanborn is tied with redshirt senior outside linebacker Zack Baun with six, but the sophomore also pulled down an interception that he returned for 16 yards in Wisconsin’s 61-0 win over Central Michigan on Sept. 16.

Along with Maskalunas’ jarring sideline hit against USF, Sanborn’s pick “definitely solidified himself now” in Orr’s eyes.

“Before they were halfway solidified by making plays throughout spring ball and [fall] camp and stuff like that,” Orr said, “but they definitely stamped themselves by making big plays in the games.”

When first asking Bostad about the nickname and his reaction to it, the assistant let out a laugh. Now in his third season coaching the Badgers’ inside linebackers after years as an offensive line coach both at Wisconsin and in the NFL, he stated you want players to take ownership, have an identity and build up pride.

“I’ve done things like that all the way back early in my coaching career with different units, and it’s grown, it’s developed,” Bostad said on Wednesday. “They’ve let it get legs and all that, and they’ve run with it, so I give them the credit. I really have just stood back and let it go, and it’s fun for them, and this and that. Some of our guys get a kick out of it.”

Coming into the season, Wisconsin -- and Death Row, for that matter -- needed to replace Connelly and T.J. Edwards. Both now play for NFC East teams at the next level in the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. Before that, Jack Cichy, a former walk-on like Connelly, patrolled the field at a high level at inside linebacker before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

According to Sanborn, being part of "Death Row" means to continue the culture and production of this position group.

“I mean, from when I got here, it’s just such a tradition that has history, in my opinion, just because from the guys that came before us like T.J., like Ryan, like Cichy, like all of those guys,” Sanborn said on Sept. 16.

“They were a part of it, and now I mean it just continues. It’s just a legacy that we want to hold of being great linebackers here at Wisconsin.”