August 4, 2011

Fall outlook: Linebackers

MADISON - Even during spring camp -- when all Chris Borland was able to do was run sprints from one sideline to another, or factor in an occasional punt whenever he felt ultra-bored - it was easy to see how much not being able to play was bothering him.

He's a football player in the truest form. So to be sidelined for basically an entire season as well as an entire spring camp was about the worst thing that could happen to the Ohio native, and one time Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Now, with his team set to open fall camp Friday afternoon, Borland has finally been cleared to play. Though trying to guess how he will react when he gets back into practice is like guessing what the weather will be like a month from now, it's safe to say any reluctance will be checked at the McClain Center door.

"I don't think the word tentative will ever describe Borland," UW head coach Bret Bielema told reporters at last week's Big Ten Meetings in Chicago. "I do, and have had, conversations with him about some of the things I think puts himself at risks at points. You've got to talk with him and discuss things with him. I've actually had a conversation with his (father) about it, too, and the way he plays.

"I know there is probably nobody in our program that is more excited to get back and play."

When he does get back Borland will be getting comfortable in a different neck of the woods. Instead of returning to the outside, where he was clearly comfortable, he'll have to learn the nuances and intricacies of playing inside.

"We're going to put him in the middle," Bielema said. "He had a play drawn up the other day. I was just in my office and he wanted to know what the thought process was there because he hasn't played it yet. The mike linebacker is traditionally the voice. He's the exact opposite of the quarterback on offense.

"The middle linebacker is the guy you hope has all the right calls and all the right communication skills."

A healthy Borland, even if he struggles to make all the right calls early during his transition, is still going to help a defense out that desperately needs someone to step up and fill the void left by J.J. Watt.

A healthy Borland and Mike Taylor, who proved to be one of the more dynamic, young linebacker duos in the league when they were both healthy, can take the overall linebacker play even one step further.

"Mike had a really good year last year," UW senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "I think Mike is an awesome linebacker. Mike and Chris are really good linebackers and those guys can make a lot of plays.

"We really want to get after it and be nasty."

The burning question(s)

Who will emerge as the third starter?

Kevin Claxton, a highly touted safety turned linebacker prospect, turned in a very valiant spring camp last March and April. Aside from the week when he was injured, Claxton proved to be one of the more physical linebackers on the team. He may not be as explosive as Borland or Taylor, but his physical strengths, combined with the instincts he developed as a safety, should help him become consistent against both the run and the pass. He has just as good a shot as anyone to emerge as third starter.

Ethan Armstrong, who like Borland missed all of spring camp, will return from off-season shoulder surgery. He will have that drive and motivation to get back on the field in his corner, but he'll also have plenty of ground to make up on Claxton.

Another guy to keep an eye on, and one that played at an impressive rate during spring camp, is Conor O'Neill. The St. Thomas Aquinas alum made it clear that he has a general nose for the ball. After dabbling with the safety spot earlier in his Badger career, it's evident that the South Florida native is most comfortable as a linebacker.

"It's a dream come true just being able to finally fit in somewhere," O'Neill said last spring. "Last spring, being at defensive back and being my first time being there, it was definitely a difficult transition. Now I feel back at home at linebacker and I feel like I'm able to see things a lot easier and clearer.

"It's been a wonderful experience for me."

A.J. Fenton and Marcus Trotter are two more young players that will vie for playing time in 2011. Trotter, who wasn't offered a scholarship out of high school, was a playmaker throughout the majority of spring camp. With Borland coming back, though, it seems as though his reps could dwindle as camp wears on, simply because Borland needs as many of them as he can get.

Fenton, on the other hand, could legitimately push Claxton. He may not be the fastest linebacker on the team, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for with fundamentals.

It seems as though there is a lot to like out of this group of young (for the most part) linebackers.

"There's not a lot of old, but a lot of young," UW's new linebackers coach Dave Huxtable said. "So we're going to have a lot of time together to just get better and better as we go through this process."

Will Borland be as good as he was as a true freshman?

That remains to be seen.

He's got to prove he can stay healthy first and foremost. If he can, and if he isn't ultra-conservative while trying to do so, he can absolutely be as much of an impact player as he was back then. Instincts, once you develop them, are tough to lose.

On the rise:

Conor O'Neill

He was everywhere during camp. He was making plays in the backfield, he was making interceptions, he was tackling seemingly everybody that carried the ball, he was quick getting off blocks, he was savvy at his position and most importantly, he got better during the 15 practices allotted to him last spring.

"He's just like a lot of other guys that are still young and still learning the game," UW's newly tabbed co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "They're learning every day and hopefully improving every single day. You can see that with Conor. He's got a long way to go because he just hasn't played linebacker at the college level very much. He's learning with his new coach every day.

"You do see Conor showing up more and more."

Stock falling:

Marcus Trotter

To categorize Trotter in this category isn't fair because of the negative connotations that stem from it. This is not a bad thing. Unfortunately for Trotter and his hopes of playing, though, the return of both Armstrong and Borland are.

There simply isn't enough room for him if those two are healthy. Will Trotter become a player at some point during his career? Absolutely. Will that be this year? Not without catastrophic injury at the position.

The most interesting man

Josh Harrison

Borland and Armstrong might be the most intriguing just because there are so many questions that need to be answered in regards to their health. And until they actually get on the field it will be very difficult to fully grapple with that notion.

So, aside from them, it will be interesting to see how Harrison continues to progress now that he's been in the program for a full year. They say the biggest leap a player makes comes between his freshman and sophomore season. That time is now for Harrison, and judging by his performance throughout fall camp, he looks to be a player that could make some noise this fall.

"To play football you've got to love to run," Harrison said. "You've got to love to hit and you've got to love to hit."

Key competition

The starters look to be pretty set at the linebacker position, so the battle to round out the two deep should be pretty good.

Based off their respective spring camps, there are legitimately six to eight players that could battle for a spot in the two deep. Guys such as Armstrong, Fenton, Nick Hill, Cameron Ontko and Trotter have already had a chance to emerge during practice.

Will any of the incoming freshmen such as Jacob Keefer, Derek Watt or Derek Landisch be able to make an impression that quickly? That's the beauty of fall camp. We have to wait to see how it all plays out.

Quote worthy

Harrison on the impact Borland and Armstrong made on him last spring while they were injured:

"They've really been helping me become better. They're sort of like an extra coach on the sideline. When coach Hux is on the other players or what not, because they have also been learning the middle position, so as far as stepping in and being able to play that's my goal. That's why I came up here. I don't wish anything bad towards them, but we all know there is competition for the spot.

"We are all going to give it our all and help each other in the process."



 

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