The Eden Prairie Eagles had suffered attrition with the 2012 roster, as happens during a football season. They were in the early stages of a practice for the playoffs and a defensive coach said to Mike Grant: “We need another end.”
The head coach thought for a moment and said: “Take Connor over there.”
He was referring to Connor Johnson, a receiver of limited size but also willingness and quickness.
“The coach thought I said, ‘Take Connelly,’ ” Grant said.
Soon, Grant was watching the offense, with Grant Shaeffer running the first team at quarterback and his backup, Ryan Connelly, not in the vicinity.
“Where’s Connelly?” Grant asked, and was told that he sent him over to the defense.
Grant walked across the field to retrieve Connelly. The defensive coach said, “OK, but he’s been here five minutes, and he’s already the best we have.”
Mike Grant learned several things about coaching from his father, Bud, and the most important was common sense. He told the defense to keep Connelly for the rest of the playoff run.
Shaeffer headed off to St. Thomas, where he was the point guard for an NCAA Division III national title basketball team in 2016. Connelly returned to quarterback for Eden Prairie and the Eagles were state champs again — three in a row — in 2013.
Connelly was 6-3 and 215 or so, with a chance to add pounds. He also was a lacrosse standout, a tribute to the mobility that went with toughness, intelligence and zeal to win.
“Ryan was a terrific athlete,” Shaeffer said. “I wasn’t going to be surprised by anything he accomplished in football.”
Nor was Mike Grant.
“I tried to tell everybody that he was a Big Ten player,” Grant said. “The Gophers kept saying they weren’t sure. Wisconsin was the only one that listened.”
The Gophers’ reluctance was in line with most recruiters. North Dakota State and the rest of the FCS schools surrounding Minnesota weren’t interested in offering a scholarship.
“The only scholarship was UMD [Minnesota Duluth],” Connelly said. “Mike Grant was talking to schools for me. And I had another connection to Ben Strickland, the recruiting coordinator at Wisconsin. The Badgers offered me a preferred walk-on, and I took it on the spot.”
Connelly arrived for summer workouts in 2014. It was the second season for coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in Madison. Aranda had installed a 3-4 defense.
Aranda saw Connelly as an inside linebacker from the get-go. He was redshirted in 2014, and received a scholarship for his freshman season in 2015. By then, Andersen had gotten crossways with Wisconsin and took off for Oregon State.
Paul Chryst came in, kept Aranda for one season, then lost him to LSU for a much larger salary. Justin Wilcox, fired at Southern Cal, was the coordinator in 2016 and was hired after the season as the head coach at California. Chryst promoted Jim Leonhard, now 35, for 2017.
“We’ve had three outstanding defensive coordinators,” Connelly said. “And we’ve played the same 3-4, with a few new wrinkles each time.”
Connelly was a backup in 2015, and was productive in a 23-21 victory over Southern Cal in the Holiday Bowl. He emerged last season and the Badgers defeated Western Michigan 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl.
This time, the Badgers were 12-0 in the regular season, missing the College Football Playoff with a 27-21 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. They shook that off and beat Miami 34-24 last Saturday in the Orange Bowl, putting Chryst’s three-season record at 34-7.
Early on, Miami’s speed looked overwhelming. It was 14-3 and about to get worse, before the Badgers’ Andrew Van Ginkel intercepted a pass on the first play of the second quarter. The game turned right then.
“It was a madhouse … the Miami fans were wild,” Connelly said. “We weren’t playing with our discipline for a while. Once we got that back, we were OK, even against that Miami talent.”
Mike Grant was watching from home.
“The Badgers have smart players,” he said. “They took away [Miami’s] angles. All of a sudden, you saw Ryan Connelly in the backfield, sending Miami where it didn’t want to go.”
Connelly had eight tackles, a pass breakup and the last of Wisconsin’s three interceptions with 1:19 remaining.
OK, Coach Grant, you had to be surprised that Connelly would turn into a player who could offer this much in an Orange Bowl.
“Not at all,” Grant said. “He makes plays. That’s what coaches should be looking for, not whether someone’s 10 pounds light or a tick slow. We have another playmaker out here in [RB/LB and Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year] Antonio Montero.
“If these Big Ten schools don’t come in here and offer Montero a scholarship, they are missing out.”