Spring Position Preview: Linebackers

Chris Borland (Fedie/File)

Although senior linebacker and Big Ten leading tackler Mike Taylor is out once again during spring practices, the Badgers have a healthy Chris Borland and a plethora of young depth waiting in the wings, making UW's linebackers group one of the deepest on the team.

MADISON - With all his jetting around following the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema wasn't around his players much during portions of Wisconsin's winter conditioning program. After time away and upon seeing stud junior middle linebacker Chris Borland increase his weight to 250 pounds, one thought came to Bielema's mind: thick

The Badgers are incredibly deep at linebacker even with senior Mike Taylor and redshirt junior Ethan Armstrong out this spring because of offseason surgeries, and Borland is the guy that will be the pulse of the defense once again.

Even after not playing for one-and-a-half seasons because of double shoulder problems and a switch from outside to inside linebacker, Borland (5-11, 250) tied for seventh in the country and ranked second in the Big Ten (behind Taylor) with 143 tackles. Borland had seven games of at least 10 tackles, including 12 stops verse Oregon in the Rose Bowl, but he was more than just a tackling machine.

Borland led the team, ranked third in the Big Ten and tied for 12th in the country with 19.0 tackles for loss, a mark that was the most for a middle linebacker in the country and the most by a linebacker in school history. Throw in the fact he ranked second in the Big Ten and tied for seventh in the country with five forced fumbles, it's not a stretch of the imagination to see he was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection.

Combine the fact that he's put on 5-10 pounds and he's got experience now at the middle linebacker position, there's no telling what he's capable of this year.

"He is as gifted as he's ever been, just the way he can move around, hop around," said Bielema. "And the thing that it makes up for because of the shoulder history he's had, the more girth he can have around that shoulder, I think, really makes him feel comfortable and as long as he hasn't lost anything speed-wise.

"He's got a unique ability to create a large amount of force in a short amount of time and in a small, restricted area that is unprecedented, for me, as a coach, to see."

While Borland is entrenched in the center of the defense, new linebackers coach Andy Buh has the luxury of rotating in plenty of bodies around Borland to see what fits with presumed starters Taylor and Armstrong out.

Working next to Borland on the outside has been redshirt junior Conor O'Neill (6-0, 225) and sophomore Derek Landisch (5-11, 226). O'Neill came in as a linebacker and was tried unsuccessfully at safety for his first two years, but the switch back to linebacker prior to last season has put the former St. Thomas Aquinas star back in his comfort zone. Playing every game last season, O'Neill registered 28 tackles and used his natural power to register special teams fumbles in fumbles in back-to-back games against Penn State and Michigan State.

O'Neill was senior Kevin Claxton's backup last season, which is fitting because they both had experience playing safety in college to help their knowledge of opposing offenses. O'Neill's knowledge and experience will certainly put him in the mix if he has a solid spring to challenge Armstrong for a starting spot.

Landisch was one of the few true freshmen to play last season and he made 20 tackles during special teams duty. Reminding fans a lot of Borland coming out of high school (and not just because they wore the same No.44 jersey), Landisch is a tough, hard-nosed football player that has an eye for the ball carrier. He was the team's rookie of the year (just like Borland was in 2009) and looks to be developing just like him.

Behind the first team is a group comprised of redshirt junior A.J. Fenton (6-1, 219), redshirt freshman Jake Keefer (6-3, 232) and redshirt sophomore Cody Byers (6-2, 220) rotating at the outside linebacker while redshirt sophomore Marcus Trotter (6-0, 222) and redshirt freshman Derek Watt (6-2, 225 pounds) are backing up Borland.

Fenton was in the same recruiting as Borland and O'Neill and his development was slower that the other two because he wasn't a pure linebacker in high school, being more known in Erie, PA, for his skills as a running back. Fenton has made good strides at UW, but has been victimized by more experienced players in front of him.

Keefer was the stud in-state player of the 2011 recruiting class – a class that included Landisch and Watt – and has added roughly 30 pounds since he committed. Byers, a former prep teammate of Borland in Kettering, Ohio, has been called a better linebacker than Borland by Borland himself. After redshirting two years ago and not playing at all last year, this spring will give Byers his first real chance to show if that is true or not.

Slowed by a hamstring injury last fall, Trotter has been playing with a chip on his shoulder ever since high school. Failing to have a single BCS scholarship offer available to him on signing day, Trotter was brought on by Bielema as a fullback and told he would get three years on scholarship. Trotter accepted, but told Bielema he wanted to play linebacker, and has shown flashes of his abilities that is proving the head coach wrong. The key for him is to stay healthy, because he's too good of an athlete to not have on the field in some capacity.

The same could be said about Watt, who has the right kind of bloodlines to be successful at Wisconsin. Watt has been Borland's primary backup and has been making impressive strides considering his age. He was a huge signee for Wisconsin in the 2011 recruiting class, especially since he originally committed to a grayshirt offer over a full scholarship to Northwestern.

Make no mistake that Borland and Taylor are going to be the pulse of the defense for a second straight year, but fans can't help but be excited when he see the amount of depth that is building behind the scenes.

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