Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers

Not only does Wisconsin's defense boast two of the best linebackers in the country in senior Mike Taylor and junior Chris Borland, they have arguably the deepest unit on the team, making the middle of UW's defense one of the program's biggest strengths in 2012.

This is the sixth in a series of eight previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 30: Quarterbacks

July 31: Running backs

Aug 1: Receivers

Aug 2: Offensive linemen

Aug. 3: Defensive linemen

Aug. 4: Linebackers

Aug. 5: Defensive backs

Aug. 6: Specialists

Projected starters: Weakside LB Mike Taylor (redshirt senior), Middle LB Chris Borland (redshirt junior), Strongside LB Ethan Armstrong (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Derek Landisch (sophomore), Marcus Trotter (redshirt sophomore), A.J. Fenton (redshirt junior), Conor O'Neill (redshirt junior), Derek Watt (redshirt freshman)

The breakdown:

As he fielded questions during Big Ten Media Days, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema revealed that after offering the linebackers coach job to Nevada defensive coordinator Andy Buh, the Wolfpack offered Buh the head-coach-in-waiting job.

Why didn't he take it? A variety of reasons, but one was, without question, the amount of talent and depth that will be patrolling the middle of the Wisconsin defense.

"This is the most depth we've had a linebacker since I've been here," said Taylor. "We have a two-deep that I would feel comfortable putting in a game. Some of the guys at the threes would be starting for a Division 1 team somewhere right now. It's very deep and it's exciting."

When it comes to one-two punches on the field, there are few better in the country than Taylor and Borland, a duo that combined for 293 tackles last season.

On the preseason watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, given to college football's best defensive player, and the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best lineman or linebacker, Taylor led the conference and finished third in the country with 150 tackles, 22 of which came in a standout performance against Ohio State that was the most tackles made by a UW players since 1998.

Also up for the Nagurski Trophy and the Lombardi Award in addition to the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's best defensive player, and the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker, Borland ranked second in the Big Ten in tackles behind Taylor with 143. He ranked third in the Big Ten with 19 tackles for a loss, the most for a middle linebacker in the country and the most by a Wisconsin linebacker in program history.

But as good as they are players, Taylor and Borland might be the best two leaders on the team.

Taylor emergence as a leader on Wisconsin's defense began last October in East Lansing when the Badgers sulked into the locker room trailing by nine. Michigan State outscored UW 23-0 in that second quarter and Taylor used a combination of passion and some profanity to drum up some motivation.

Even though UW fell in heartbreaking fashion on an end-of-the-game Hail Mary, Wisconsin still rebounded to win the conference championship a little over a month later.

"I rather not lose than win," said Taylor. "I want the guys to know that I am going to fight until the end."

Borland is in the same boat, but the games that bother him the most are bowl games. While Wisconsin are back-to-back Big Ten champions, they have lost consecutive Rose Bowls by a combined nine points.

"They are both games that we could have won," said Borland. "We did play two great teams. Arguably the national champions two years ago and Oregon was a great team. They are frustrating. I felt like we could have won them. Because of their ability and the mistakes we made, we didn't (win) and I don't feel very good about either of them."

That's why it's so important to have both Taylor and Borland on the field at the same time. Last season was the first time Wisconsin got both players for every game last season, extremely important and impressive for two guys that have been through a laundry list of injury issues over their respective careers (Taylor with neck, hip and knee surgery, Borland with shoulder surgery).

After missing the spring to recover from offseason surgery to repair a torn hip labrum, Taylor proclaims himself 100 percent, calling himself ‘springy' and ‘ready to play, ready to run.'

Both players being healthy also helps champion the cause for improvement. After getting run over in the Rose Bowl, strength coach Ben Herbert made sure the Badgers were more equipped for similar challenges. While the defense's speed is necessarily better, Taylor feels their endurance is.

"We can maybe sprint longer than we have in the past," said Taylor. "In those close games when we play those fast backs, it comes down to how long can you endure in the second half. Do you have the same speed we had in the first? There were a few games last year where our endurance probably wasn't that great (in the second half) and Oregon was a good example of that."

While Taylor and Borland are set at their positions, the strongside position is the one where UW could have some flux.

Armstrong played in the team's first 12 games last season before suffering a hip injury against Penn State that required him to be taken off the field in an ambulance and undergo surgery that kept him out of spring practices. Armstrong has been proclaimed healthy and has the inside track at the start position because of his experience.

"Ethan has had shoulder surgery, hip surgery, a long list, and he's never really been healthy," said Bielema. "I know he's feeling the healthiest he's ever been. It's going to be intriguing for us to watch that."

If Armstrong needs a break, the Badgers' depth is the linebacker's biggest strength. O'Neill and Fenton were both impressive during spring practice with Fenton having a stronger second half of spring and O'Neill having a better first half.

Named the Badgers' Rookie of the Year, Derek Landisch has a ton of potential and big-play ability after working on special teams in all 14 games last year. The same has been said about incoming freshman Vince Biegel, who Bielema raved about at media day as a player that could help the team this season … high praise considering how deep the Badgers are at the position.

"In summer camp as a high school player was more dominant as a pass rusher than Chris or Mike, and both of them were really good," said Bielema. "The thing that Vince has got on him is that he's long, explosive, hyper and a lot of those times he's a guy who is very hard to block."

While Landisch will back up Taylor, Trotter will back up Borland and is a smart, aggressive, intuitive player when he's able to stay healthy. Watt also made a strong impression working at the middle position when Borland and Trotter were out, including making a number of tackles and interceptions during scrimmages.

"Me and Chris have a lot of experience and a lot of games, but guys like A.J., Armstrong and Landisch have played games," said Taylor. "We have a lot of good guys and we got lucky in recruiting bringing in some talented guys that just want to play linebacker. You are involved in every play and if you aren't involved, you aren't a linebacker. It's fun because every play depends on you."

The last part of Taylor's quote comes from Buh. In just a few weeks working with the linebackers during spring, Buh taught his group to use their eyes, be more physical at the point of contact and be assignment sound on every single play. More importantly, he keeps the group focused on the task at hand.

"He's a linebackers coach for sure," said Borland. "He played the position in the 90s and knows everything about it. It's exciting to play for guys that have that energy and passion for the game.

"We want to win a championship and we're in it to head back to Indianapolis, but you can't jump from step one to Indianapolis right now. You have to go through the process and we do a good job of staying on task. That doesn't mean we don't know the possibilities."

And with one third of the division ineligible for a bowl game or the division championship, expect the leaders among the linebackers to keep Wisconsin pointed in the right direction.

"If you don't take advantage for everything and you don't take a second to look around on game day, you're going to forget how special it is," said Taylor. "We have so many leaders that expect to win and expect to great. I think you'll see a team that can close games, win close games and finish big games."


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