Badgers linebackers Zack Baun, Chris Orr complete their college football journey together

Badgers linebackers Zack Baun, Chris Orr complete their college football journey together

From the Get ready for the Badgers' home finale against Purdue with State Journal coverage series
Chris Orr, Zack Baun photo

From left, Chris Orr, Zack Baun and Jack Sanborn team up to sack Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters during UW's loss Oct. 19 in Champaign, Ill.

The senior seasons that University of Wisconsin linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr have put together didn’t seem likely at many points in their careers.

Their paths to on-field success were winding and hit valleys along the way. Both joined the football program with doubts about their ability they needed to shed. Both experienced season-ending injuries and sat behind great talent on the depth chart. Both had to push through the mental challenges those factors present as well.

But both always had each other. They were roommates their first three seasons at UW, growing as players and people together. That relationship has blossomed into the emotional backbone of the defense, which has exceeded expectations almost as much as the pair has individually.

“Within their own personalities, I think they’ve had a huge impact on this team,’’ UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I think they both put everything they had into every moment this year. I’m talking from first time we got back from winter break and started this and obviously have led and impacted this team on the field. But off the field they’ve been every bit as valuable to this team.

“It’s been fun to watch. I think they’re both truly putting themselves all into it, but I think they’re having a blast with this group, and that’s fun to see.”

When the No. 14 Badgers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) play host to Purdue (4-6, 3-4) at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, they’ll honor the senior class, including Baun and Orr. They will be captains in their last game at their home stadium, a place where they’ve won 22 games and lost just five.

Who they are and what they mean to the Badgers is a testament to the drive each possesses and shares with their teammates, linebacker Jack Sanborn said.

“They play with a joy, a sense of passion that you can feed off of,” he said. “They’re always having fun out there, I’m always having fun out there with them, practice or games. You just see the passion that goes into football with them, how much the game means to them, how much they enjoy it.”

Paths finally merge

Baun and Orr were at different points of their development when they arrived at UW.

Baun was just beginning a transition to outside linebacker after playing quarterback in high school, while Orr was chomping at the bit to get on the field quickly.

“Coming in, I remember when we were freshmen in the dorm room when (Orr) told me how, right when we moved in, that he wanted to start,” Baun said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ Freshman wanting to start, that’s a big, big thing to say. But he ended up making a big impact right away.”

Orr backed up his words with his play, appearing in 10 games as a freshman. Baun said he wasn’t jealous of his roommate finding the field because he knew he needed to develop his body and learn the ropes of a new position at the college level.

Their sophomore seasons in 2016 looked to be when they’d finally be playing together, but Orr tore his ACL in the opener against LSU. While Orr rehabbed, Baun started to carve out a role for himself on special teams.

When Orr was healthy the next season, Baun suffered a broken foot during camp and didn’t play. Orr had a solid year, playing in 12 games and making eight starts. Those seasons also saw a crop of linebackers including T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley and Andrew Van Ginkel assert themselves as starters, limiting the snaps Baun and Orr could take.

“It was definitely hard, probably more mentally than physically,” Orr said of those years. “You can push through anything physically. But it definitely made me mentally tough, a lot stronger and a lot more resilient than I ever thought I could be. It definitely helped me out a lot.”

Things finally aligned this season, with Baun and Orr taking over starting roles. They’ve been dominant from the start, with Orr leading the team in tackles (55) and sacks (10), and Baun becoming a force behind the line of scrimmage with 14 tackles for loss and 9½ sacks to go with 50 total tackles.

While playing well and anchoring a strong defense was the goal, Orr said being looked at as a leader is something he enjoys even more.

“I would say that’s more worth it than the stats and stuff like that. I’ve probably had the most fun doing that, to be honest. Playing is always fun, but I’ve had a lot of fun just being the leader,” he said.

Friendly competition

Orr and Baun had back-to-back sacks against Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez in the first quarter last week, and it sparked a familiar back-and-forth.

They challenged each other to see who would finish with the most sacks — a bet made in multiple games this season. Baun won the in-game battle by getting another sack in the third quarter, but Orr still holds the season lead.

“It’s turned into kind of a competition now,” Baun said. “It’s just fun that we both have been able to develop and we’re finally out there playing together and playing good football.”

Both have been destructive to opponents’ game plans, with Baun coming off the edge and Orr rushing from a number of spots. UW is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have two players with 8½ or more sacks. If Baun can record a half-sack over the next two weeks, he and Orr will become the first UW pair to account for 10 or more sacks in the same season since Tarek Saleh (14) and Bryan Jurewicz (10) in 1996.

Orr laughed when asked about the competition with Baun.

“We’ve got to have him drop in coverage more. That’s the problem,” Orr said through a smile.

“I would never tell him this, it’s a little skewed because he’s rushing way more than me. But that competition’s going to stay alive. Hopefully have him drop a little more, that’s the only way he’s not going to get one.”

Setting an example

Senior Days are times of reflection and appreciation.

Baun and Orr have learned to appreciate the time they get on the field, especially together, because at so many points in their careers that wasn’t possible.

“Me and Zack came in here together and now to see it all come together with us leading the team together, it’s definitely surreal at times but definitely fun,” Orr said.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has lauded Baun’s maturation this season, both as a player and as a leader, and the way Orr has stepped up his play as his role increased.

While their paths to this moment weren’t straight or smooth, Baun and Orr have become examples of sticking to the plan and continuing to overcome challenges.

“I think it’s huge for a program when you have guys that you just see go through it all. I’ve said it about Chris before, Zack, put him in the same boat. They’ve had the full college football experience,” Leonhard said. “Play early, have an injury, depth and great players in front of them so now you’re waiting your turn, and just fighting through all of that, continuing to get better, not feeling sorry for yourself, accepting the roles that you’re in. By the time you get to your junior, senior years and it’s your time to roll, being productive and making plays and turning into a great leader. They really have been through all of it. They’ve seen it all.

“It’s huge for a program because that’s the norm. It’s not come in and play as a true freshman, it’s not come and be a starter as a redshirt freshman and be an All-American or All-Big Ten type of player — that’s not the norm. We all love that guy, we want as many as possible, but the norm is that you’re going to have adversity and you’re going to have to push through it.”

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