Ready to Shoulder the Load

Chris Borland (Fleming/File)

Chris Borland hasn't played a full game in 20 months and had more shoulder surgeries then starts last season. Borland is still dealing with issues but as he is eased back into the lineup, the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year has showed he's ready to go.

MADISON - If he has any hesitation of how his promising young linebacker would hold up in his first extended competition in 11 months, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema got the answer on one of the first days of fall practice with how Chris Borland was feeling after double shoulder surgery.

Working with the first-team defense, Borland made a diving play, landed on his surgically-repaired right shoulder and popped right back up, elevating some of the concerns of one of Wisconsin's most important assets.

"At least that right shoulder is OK," Bielema said. "You just naturally have those concerns."

It's the main reason Wisconsin has moved cautiously with Borland, who had off-season surgery on both shoulders. He broke a bone in his left shoulder and had surgery to repair the damage, forcing him to shutdown his season after only two partial games.

He subsequently underwent surgery on his right shoulder to repair a slight tear in his labrum and sat out spring practice. It caused the Wisconsin coaching staff to have conversations with the redshirt sophomore to try to get him to play with his feet under him more and to learn when to and not to take chances.

It's also caused the coaching staff to ease him back into the rotations, giving the young players reps and keeping Borland's shoulders healthy. Bielema said the word ‘tentative' will never be used to describe Borland, but the coaches have held him out of both scrimmages and significant time last week when his shoulder started to flare up.

Borland got a little peace of mind when an MRI last weekend on his right shoulder was negative, revealing everything was healthy and that the shoulder was just tender. It's not the contact or landing on the shoulders that bothers Borland as much as getting it over extended taking on blocks, something that happens every practice and a reason he believes he'll play with some type of pain all season.

"Every football player plays with pain," said Borland, who practices with two hefty shoulder braces. "You aren't healthy pretty much after your first fall camp, so it's just something you deal with."

Borland doesn't expect to change his way of operating just because of some bumps and bruises, which gives fans some semblance of excitement that the player that recorded 54 tackles, five sacks, 10.5 TFLs, five forced fumbles, recovering three fumbles and intercepting a pass in 13 games in 2009 will return. He's shown that the player is not far off, and it seems that the defense response when he's in the lineup.

"I try to (add energy)," Borland said. "I think everybody responds pretty well. It's not anything special, just trying to play hard."

Not only do the Badgers have to worry about Borland, but the coaching staff is also limiting the reps of junior Mike Taylor. Taylor finish second on the team in TFLs, tied for second in interceptions and fourth in tackles last season in Borland's absence, but battled knee soreness last week in the same right knee he tore his ACL in during the 2009 season.

Borland and Taylor are considered by many as Wisconsin's top two playmakers on defense but in two seasons, they have yet to play a full game together and have rarely completed a full practice together this fall. Still, they've both showed their abilities in camp (Borland with his aggressive play and Taylor with two TFLs in Thursday's scrimmage) and both said they'll be ready for the opener on September 1.

"We're struggling with (staying healthy), but I would love to play with (Taylor) and hopefully we're on the field all year," Borland said.

Cleared in late May for full workouts, Borland participated in UW's summer workouts and started preparing his mind and his body to make the move from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, considered the quarterback of the defense. When Wisconsin is in its cover-2 defense, the demands on the ‘Mike' linebacker position increases when it comes to his reads and dropping into the middle of the field for pass coverage.

"I've been working hard at that," Borland said. I've got a ways to improve in the pass drops for Mike, but I think I'm capable … Physically doing it is different. I understood it coming in but you've got to go through it physically. Your block protection is different, it's fitting blocks, fitting runs, you come from different angles, too. That was an adjustment, but it's not too much different. It's still linebacker."

And like his teammates, he's been tested by the quarterback play of senior Russell Wilson. Able to throw with precision, read defenses accurately and not afraid to tuck the ball and run if he sees an alley, Borland and his counterparts have been forced to stay on their toes, and have become accustomed to preparing against multidimensional quarterbacks.

"He's a very good quarterback," said Borland. "He jukes you out more than any Wisconsin quarterback that I've ever been around. It's a change of pace, no offense to Scott (Tolzien) or (Nate) Tice. He's a player and we'll all be better for it."

They'll be better, too, if Borland can stay healthy.

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