Analyzing the Sam Linebacker Spot

In one of the few true position battles facing Wisconsin's defense in this year's fall camp, Three redshirt junior linebackers - Ethan Armstrong, A.J. Fenton and Conor O'Neill - enter fall camp battling for the starting spot.

MADISON - Ever since he stood on the sidelines watching the group workout during spring practices, senior outside linebacker Mike Taylor has been gushing about the talent and depth the Badgers possess at the linebacker position heading into the 2012 season.

He's not kidding, especially with Wisconsin having two of the nation's top tacklers from last season returning in Taylor (150 tackles) and Chris Borland (143).

"This is the most depth we've had a linebacker since I've been here," Taylor said at Big Ten Media Days "We have a two-deep that I would feel comfortable putting in a game."

On a defense that seems to have experience and a returning starter at virtually every position, that depth is causing one of fall camps most interesting position battles at the strongside linebacker position between redshirt juniors Ethan Armstrong, A.J. Fenton and Conor O'Neill.

It's a group of three that has playing experience, talent and the desire to be the starter when the Badgers open their season against Northern Iowa on September 1. Badger Nation looks at the three players.

Ethan Armstrong (6-2, 232 pounds)

As he lay on the Camp Randall turf in the season finale, Armstrong contemplating what his future as a Wisconsin football player was going to be.

Armstrong had been battling pain all season long, but the right hip finally gave out on a tackle against Penn State, causing a good deal of physical and mental pain as he was removed from the field by ambulance and his season to be over.

"It was frustrating because I realized what I was missing out on," said Armstrong. "I didn't get to play in that championship game and the Rose Bowl. I had worked for that, but it was out of my control."

The injury was diagnosed as cam impingement and resulted in the labrum in each hip tearing after years of wear and tear from football. The impingement also caused the hip socket to widen and cause bone issues with his femur.

Armstrong has surgery on his right hip on December 13 and followed with surgery on his left exactly a month later. Sidelined for five months before he was cleared to start running, Armstrong was brought along slowly before getting full clearance.

"It was nice to finally get some relief from that and know that I am on the road of recovery, but it was frustrating to sit out and miss another opportunity to compete, especially with us having a new position coach," said Armstrong, referring to new linebackers coach Andy Buh. "I was more than happy to get back this summer and hit the ground running."

Proclaiming to be the healthiest he's been in the past two years, Armstrong is trying to make up for lost time in a position battle against two players that both got meaningful reps throughout the spring. The one advantage Armstrong has is experience; having played in 25 games over the past two years, including two starts, and has made 43 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack in his career.

"This is something I've always worked for, always wanted and always hoped to achieve," said Armstrong. "That's my motivation there. Knowing that (Fenton and O'Neill) have a leg up on me makes good competition and will hopefully bring out the best in all of us. We're all in the same class and good friends, so we have a good mindset about it. We're still teammates, linebackers and friends."

Like his fellow position players, Armstrong has grasped on to the concepts being delivered by Buh, including cleaning up technique, reads and responsibilities. Putting pads on for the first time in 10 months, Armstrong is hopeful Buh's teachings combined with fresh hips will give him an edge.

"Hopefully I can pick up some momentum, because you get rusty with the surgery," said Armstrong. "It's all about getting back into it."

A.J. Fenton (6-2, 232 pounds)

Through the first handful of practices in the spring, Fenton felt he was under performing, was a step slow and was lost out on the field. A harsh self pep talk during the team's week off for spring break certainly did the trick.

Recognizing that he needed to play with a sense of urgency with only two more years left on campus, Fenton went on a tear over the second half of spring that opened up the eyes of head coach Bret Bielema, Buh and the rest of defense, as camp ended with him in the starting spot.

"I had a lot of confidence," said Fenton. "I think the game starts to slow down and you get to be a lot better when you have confidence, you realize your abilities and use them. I think it's carried over into fall camp."

Actually it's a progression of the work he did in summer with strength coach Ben Herbert and his staff. Entering his fourth year, Fenton says his confidence lies in his speed and knowledge of the defense's schemes, things that grew during a physical offseason program.

"(The strength staff) are pretty good motivators, so it wasn't hard to stay motivated after the spring that I had," said Fenton, who maintained his weight from spring. "I just wanted to have a good summer, lift the weights, eat the right foods and be in the best shape possible for fall camp."

He's also been motivated by Buh, who called Fenton prior to fall camp to add to that motivation.

"He said he was excited to get to work and he was excited about what I did in spring," said Fenton. "He wants to see what I can do in the fall."

After playing on special teams the last two seasons, Fenton's desire to start and contribute has never been deeper, especially he's carrying the most momentum of the three competitors into camp.

"All three of us want to be the starter and nobody doesn't want to be the starter," said Fenton. "We're going to have a solid ‘Sam' linebacker group, so I am pretty excited about it. We just have to keep working and hopefully we can play hard, do the right things and stay in good standing off the field."

Conor O'Neill (6-0, 225 pounds)

With every rise of one player, another player is passed over. When Fenton came back with a vengeance after spring break, he surpassed O'Neill, who by his own admittance started strong and faded after the break.

That was tough to stomach for O'Neill, who came on late at the end of the season by forcing two special teams fumbles in his final three games and started spring as the starting outside linebacker.

"I felt once we came back from spring break, I definitely had a few practices that put me in the hole," said O'Neill, who had 28 tackles last season. "They were just little things that I knew how to do and didn't do them. Mentally, I was there but I wasn't there to be doing the right things at the right time."

The little things O'Neill mentioned were his ability to take on blocks correctly, go through his reads and make plays. He also battled ankle injuries during camp that held him out of multiple practices, allowing Fenton to get a bigger jump. He spent the summer stewing about those issues and a majority of the time correcting and fine tuning to prevent further lapses.

"As a football player you are never issue free, unless you are Peyton Manning or Russell Wilson," said O'Neill. "I am determined to not have those little mistakes."

One thing is for certain, O'Neill is back where he feels comfortable. A standout linebacker at St. Thomas Aquinas HS, O'Neill was unnaturally put at safety for two seasons before moving back to linebacker prior to last season.

"I definitely feel more comfortable at the position after adding strength and taking on o-linemen, fullbacks and tight ends," said O'Neill. "After these first couple days, I feel comfortable at my position."

Like Fenton, O'Neill got the ‘urgency wake-up call,' but his didn't come until after spring practices. With two fall camps and one winter conditioning remaining in his career, O'Neill said he did extra lifts after workouts, adding eight pounds to his frame to strength his upper body and his ankles.

"I need to make this my time," said O'Neill. "I am going into fall camp wanting to be the starter, and I am not going to be satisfied with myself if I don't give it everything that I have."

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