New linebackers coach Dave Huxtable will have to replace two key seniors – Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean – in the middle of Wisconsin's defense this upcoming season, but the thought of getting the 2009 conference freshman of the year back and healthy is a huge addition.
"I have seen him on film and what a heck of a football player he is," Huxtable said in the spring. "He does some really impressive things on film. Chris has an ‘eagerness' … and that excites me."
Borland because a fan favorite after recording 54 tackles, five sacks, 10.5 TFLs, five forced fumbles, recovering three fumbles and intercepting a pass in 13 games that year. He got the reputation for being fearless, tenacious and not letting anything stand in his way.
Wisconsin's version of Superman played in two of UW's first three games in 2011, registering seven tackles, but had to leave both games early due to a shoulder injury, and eventually shut it down. Borland watched in a sling as Wisconsin won its first conference championship in 11 years, struggled in the Rose Bowl and sat idle on the sidelines during the spring, forced to take mental reps instead of actual ones.
Since the end of his freshman season, Borland has undergone two major surgeries on his left shoulder, a minor procedure on his right shoulder and hasn't played a full game since December '09. Needless to say, he's ready.
"I am excited to play football again," Borland said. "I know it's cliché, but if I work hard and play hard, things will be fine. I don't worry about topping anything I have done or trying to be this guy or that guy. I just worry about going out and playing hard."
Since his injury, Borland became a true film junkie. During the course of the spring, Borland watched the entire seasons of all the conference opponents on the Badgers' 2011 schedule, meticulously taking notes of his observations of continuous patterns and plays that teams liked to run. It's that film study that has made Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema confident to start Borland at the middle linebacker position and move him to the outside in some third down situations, making him even more productive.
"We really haven't had a Mike linebacker (and) this is nothing against (anybody), I love all the guys that have played here, but we haven't had a Mike linebacker with the ability that (Borland's) had," said Bielema of Borland, who played the position slightly his freshman year during fall camp which features similar responsibilities and easier pass coverage.
"For some of those pressures that we were talking about and different things, if you've got a Mike linebacker that can be a good blitzer, that's a really good thing."
Cleared medically to practice right away when Wisconsin goes through its first practice on Friday, Bielema doesn't have too many concerns about Borland being tentative during camp.
"I don't think the word ‘tentative' will ever describe Borland," Bielema said. "I have had conversations with him about some of the things I think put himself at risk at points."
Despite losing two seniors, the return of Borland next to junior Mike Taylor could mean that the Badgers have the best one-two linebacker punch in the conference. Putting an injury-riddled past behind him, Taylor's confidence grew as the season progressed. 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.
"I don't think it's going to be like Batman and Robin, but Mike is a solid player and I can do well," Borland said. "Fireworks aren't going to go off and magic isn't going to be happening, but I think we can help the team and help the defense. I am excited to play with Mike because he's a competitor."
Filling the third spot in the group is expected to be senior Kevin Claxton, who stepped up at times of need last season. Claxton switched from safety to linebacker during the offseason and held his own. His experience at safety, particularly in reading offenses, has helped him succeed, and has made him look more comfortable on the field.
After the upperclassmen, the Badgers were anxious to see how a youthful contingent of A.J. Fenton, Josh Harrison, Conor O'Neill and Marcus Trotter respond to added reps with Borland and No.2 middle linebacker Ethan Armstrong being out during the spring. The results spoke for themselves.
Fenton, a multi-dimensional athlete in high school, has thrived since focusing on one position, and played all 13 games on special teams last season. Harrison has the ability to cover the field sideline to sideline. O'Neill has finally settled into the linebacker position after being shifted around during his career and is playing with confidence, and Trotter has shown that he is a natural, aggressive linebacker.
"There has been a big difference (in the) spring, noticing that I can play with the front seven and the big offensive line and the tight ends we have," O'Neill said. "I can play more physical at the point of contact, seeing that I have more weight and I am stronger than I was last year and especially when I was playing linebacker freshman year in the fall."
When this unit is finally healthy, it may be the deepest and toughest in the conference.