July 28: Quarterbacks
July 29: Running backs
July 30: Receivers
July 31: Tight ends
Aug 1: Offensive Linemen
Aug 2: Defensive Linemen
Aug. 4: Defensive backs
Aug. 5: Specialists
Key backups: Vince Biegel (sophomore), Sherard Cadogan (redshirt junior), Vince Biegel (sophomore), Jesse Hayes (redshirt sophomore), Nick Hill (redshirt senior), Derek Landisch (junior), Joe Schobert (sophomore), Marcus Trotter (redshirt junior)
Departed Players: Mike Taylor
When Chris Borland left Archbishop Alter High in Kettering, Ohio, to begin his career at the University of Wisconsin, he was convinced that he could be the next great Badgers tailback.
"I was a better running back than linebacker at 18," said Borland. "I hadn't done much at linebacker."
But while it was predetermined that Borland would play linebacker, it wasn't planned that he would find his niche as one of the best middle linebackers in the country.
Wisconsin's 4-3 defense can be described as an old-school, gap-accountability scheme while the 3-4 defense is more free flowing, relying more on reading and reacting to give the Badgers more freedom to change looks and disguise pressures.
After recording 104 tackles with 10 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and six pass deflections from a more assigned position (and 247 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 13 pass deflections and two interceptions the past two years), Borland has the ability to really register some eye-popping numbers now that he is free to roam and make plays on the outside.
What's even scarier is that Borland was healthy throughout the entire spring and summer, a rarity for him in the offseason, and says his football IQ is at an all-time high.
"It's huge, especially with a new scheme on defense," said Borland of his health. "It was great for me to be in there for spring ball, lead the guys and learn myself. I think it helped us pick up the scheme a little bit and smooth things out."
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda smartly threw a lot of installs at the Wisconsin defense during the 15 spring practices, choosing to get a variety of different looks and schemes on tape so the players could study the practices on their own during the summer. According to Borland, the summer film sessions were a popular hangout.
"I think they were more intense than we've ever had," said Borland. "Usually it's mostly on your own, sometimes a little bit in a group a couple times a week. This summer we had position group and individuals going up on a daily basis, really out of necessity with the new scheme. It wasn't always the cleanest, but having it on film and being able to see it and work on it during the summer makes us ahead of where we would have been (on Monday)."
It also helps that Aranda is Wisconsin's linebacker coach, giving instant feedback to his group on where he needs them to be to make his scheme work. Aranda is the next chapter for Wisconsin's linebackers, who have had four linebackers in the past four years.
"There's pros and cons to it," said Borland of another coaching change. "You can't develop a long-term relationship when you are only with them for nine months, but you are introduced to a different brand a football. Dave Huxtable was from down South, Andy Buh was from out West (and) Dave Doeren was a Midwest guy, so you see how the game is played throughout the country. You learn a lot because they are different. You have to change your knowledge of how they want you to approach everything. You see a wide variety of ways to play linebacker."
Like Borland, Armstrong and Kelly will be two players shifting around in the 3-4 scheme to better utilize their attributes. Armstrong will play the field side linebacker, known as the F-linebacker, which is a hybrid role between a regular outside linebacker and a safety. Armstrong is another reliable player - tallying 93 tackles last season – and is healthy after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring.
"He's athletic enough to run in that position," said head coach Gary Andersen of Armstrong. "He's physical enough to be able to get up on the end line of scrimmage and be able to play, and he also has very good football instincts.
"To be a really good F-linebacker, he's got to play in space, he's got to play on the end line of scrimmage, he's got to be a quick thinking kid that can react. He's been in a lot of games, and he can do that, and I think he's a very good tackler. So those are the biggest reasons for moving him out there."
Kelly will play the B-linebacker spot; a hybrid between a defensive end and a linebacker. Kelly is also healthy after missing most of spring following hip surgery. Kelly recorded 28 tackles with six tackles for a loss and five sacks last season.
Senior Conor O'Neill currently is the No. 1 rover, ahead of junior Derek Landisch, after having a strong spring, but both will be involved in the rotation. O'Neill had played in 40 games without a start and had 15 tackles last season, while Landisch (28 tackles) said in the spring that his game is geared more to the 3-4 defense.
Wisconsin also has Biegel, Hayes and Schobert that Andersen has said the coaches need to find a way to get on the field. All three had a tremendous spring, including Schobert who worked a lot with the No.1 defense as spring progressed.
"He's a very athletic young man and his expectations of himself are high, which I think we all know that if we know him at all," Andersen said.
After years of Wisconsin simply doing 7-on-7 drills during the summer to work on skills, the Badgers had two or three players run practices every week. It's no surprise that Borland was one of the ring leaders, as the former junior captain will be a main focal point once again.
"It's going to be really beneficial come fall camp," said Borland.
Burning Question: How much better can Borland get?
In Borland's freshman year, he finished with 10.5 tackles for loss and a career-high five sacks. Looking back on that season, Borland laughed since he played like a 3-4 linebacker in a 4-3 defense, running after the ball like a chicken with its head cut off. Now Borland says he'll be able to channel that philosophy in a more controlled sense this season.
"I am going to have a little bit more freedom to cause a little bit more disruption. In this defense, I have freedom to go after the ball more."
Biggest Strength: Accountability and experience. With seniors projected in all four starting spots, this group has the potential to be very good.
Biggest Problem Area: Adjusting. It shouldn't be much of an issue, but there might be a period of transition for Armstrong and Kelly, who are switching positions and are a little rusty. Both of those things should be corrected by fall camp.
Final Thought: Barring any injuries, Wisconsin's linebackers will be the strength of the defense, and have the potential to make a ton of positive plays in the new defense.