Spring Football Preview: Linebackers

Starting on March 22, Wisconsin football starts its run to the 2012 Rose Bowl with five straight weeks of spring football. In preparation for the camp, Badger Nation breaks down the seven positions over the next seven days. Today, we examine the linebackers.

MADISON – It is considered, at least by UW coach Bret Bielema's standard, as the million dollar question surrounding the University of Wisconsin.

No, it's not about who is going to be the new quarterback, how the new assistant coaches are blending into the program or how the Badgers plan to follow up last season's championship with another one. The million dollar question, or the one Bielema gets the most, is how is sophomore linebacker Chris Borland's rehabilitation going?

"Chris is really rehabbing well," Bielema said. "He'll be involved in drills that involve movement and burst, but he can't be around where other people might fall down or be around him. We're really happy with his progression. We're training him right now on film and he's learning the Mike linebacker position. That's something I think he could potentially be very good at.

"He won't be involved in spring drills, but hopefully everything we start during the June starting date and moving forward he'll be 100 percent."

After seeing his sophomore season cut short because of reoccurring shoulder injuries, Borland has no doubts that he'll be back to full form when summer conditioning begins in June. He underwent surgery on his left shoulder on Oct. 13 to fix a broken bone after undergoing surgery last spring to repair a torn labrum. The left shoulder is mostly healed, but Borland was sporting a sling to mobilize his right shoulder, which he had surgery on Dec.22.

"It's been a great process so far," Borland said before the Rose Bowl. "I am on track to be 100 percent by the end of spring ball or the beginning of the summer.

Borland was the ‘09 Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording 54 tackles, five sacks, 10.5 TFLs, five forced fumbles, recovering three fumbles and intercepting a pass in 13 games last season.

Borland played in two of UW's first three games, registering seven tackles, but had to leave both games early due to his shoulder injury. Even so, Borland admittedly has grown as a linebacker by taking plenty of mental reps on the sideline.

"The mental reps have been tremendous," Borland said. "I am at practice every day and still go to meetings. When you are playing, you have to memorize the game plan. When I am out, you get to look at the position and the defense has a whole. It's been a great learning experience and it (has) really inspired me watching this team play."

This spring will be interesting for new linebackers coach Dave Huxtable when it comes to finding his starting linebackers. Not only are the Badgers looking to replace seniors Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean and don't have Borland to fill in, Wisconsin will have sophomore linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who led UW in tackles last spring game, extremely limited throughout camp and have seen senior Kevin Rouse transfer, taking two less linebackers away from the bunch.

Consider it a bonus though that Mike Taylor (knock on wood) is finally healthy and eager to work. Taylor's track record is far from healthy, as the redshirt junior has yet to make it through a fall camp injury free. He took a medical redshirt his first season after having neck surgery to clear up an old injury from when he was a championship high school wrestler at Ashwaubenon High outside Green Bay. The following fall brought groin and hamstring problems, so when Taylor felt pain in his leg during the third practice of last year's fall camp.

A MRI revealed that Taylor had torn through some scar tissue, but Taylor only missed one game and got more confident as the season progress. In his final three games, Taylor registered 22 tackles and an interception, helping him finish second on the team in TFLs, tied for second in interceptions and fourth in tackles.

With the Badgers missing Borland, the open opportunity should be another benefit to senior Kevin Claxton, who had stepped up at times of need last season when Taylor battled some nagging injuries.

Claxton made the switch from safety to linebacker during the off-season and held his own. Claxton played in all 13 games, including a start against Michigan, made a career-high six tackles against No.1 Ohio State when Taylor left with an injury and finished with 24 tackles.

His experience at safety, particularly in reading defenses, has helped him with the ability to read the offense and be the quarterback of the defense.

"It has gone well so far. When I first moved over it was a little rough, but I just kept at it and working hard led to gaining confidence," Claxton said. "Whenever coach calls my numbers to go in, that is when I go."

After the upperclassmen, the Badgers will be anxious to see how a youthful contingent of A.J. Fenton, Josh Harrison, Nick Hill, Conor O'Neill, Cameron Ontko and Marcus Trotter respond to the amount of reps they receive.

Fenton, a multidimensional athlete in high school, has thrived since he started to focus on one position and played all 13 games on special teams last season. Harrison is a redshirt freshman that former defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said had a future at middle linebacker. The sophomore Hill will finally get to show how far he's come after originally getting kicked off the team for an off-the-field incident and missed last season with a knee injury.

O'Neill, a redshirt sophomore, came to UW as a linebacker before being moved to safety, but has since been switched back by Bielema to his original position. Redshirt freshman Cameron Ontko is just 5-foot-11, but ran one of the quickest 40-yard dashes ever in UW's high school summer camp, and Bielema wanted redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter to play fullback, so this spring will be key for him showing he is a natural linebacker.

While the Badgers won't have Borland, UW will have his former teammate Cody Byers, who Borland calls a better athlete than he is. Recording 95 tackles, five interceptions, two sacks and recovered one fumble as a senior at Archbishop Alter (Kettering, Ohio), Byers knows what it takes to win, as his team went 30-0 when he started games for his championship teams.

"I have tried to put on some weight," Byers said. "I have put on about 20 pounds before I got up here. I lost a little bit, but now I am starting to get it back. Coach Herbert is a great strength and conditioning coach. He has us right in the weight room."

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