Depth Finders

Bringing speed, knowledge and living for every play, the 2009 freshman scholarship class of Chris Borland, A.J. Fenton and Conor O'Neill have made a positive impact just two weeks into camp. What they can do over the next four years brings only excitement

MADISON - Considering the situation, Conor O'Neill couldn't help but be a little awestruck, and worn out.

Six straight days of intense practices with no time off, O'Neill, along with freshmen linebackers Chris Borland and A.J. Fenton, watched the upperclassmen be swarmed by local and national media at Wisconsin's Media Day while they finally got somewhat of a breather.

But even on a day off, the group sat together on a John Deer tractor in the far corner of the McClain center, thinking about the week ahead and how they can get better; character traits that make this young group of backers stand out from the rest.

"It's for the love of the game," O'Neill said. "We're having a great time and are enjoying every step of the way."

While other freshmen have the luxury of working at positions chalked full of talent, giving them the opportunity to slowly adjust while learning from experienced players, O'Neill, a talented linebacker from Florida 5A champion St. Thomas Aquinas, and Borland, a multi-dimensional athlete from Ohio Division 4 champion Archbishop Alter, haven't had that luxury.

With graduation, injuries and inconsistent play causing havoc on the depth chart, O'Neill and Borland have been thrown right into the fire, getting reps with the second-team defense and getting all the keys, plays and reads thrown at them at once. Even if they don't know what they are doing, the pair loves every minute of it.

"I had a high school that told me that if you're going to make a mistake, make it at full speed," Borland said. "I try to be a leader and do the right thing from the aspect of going hard. You're going to make mistakes. The coaches throw a lot at you the first week. I just try to do everything at full speed."

O'Neill was the beneficiary of running a similar defensive scheme at St. Thomas Aquinas, where he recorded 77 tackles last season as one of the team's captains. That hasn't stopped O'Neill from learning. Every break he gets, O'Neill and the other freshman linebackers head to defensive coordinator Dave Doeren's office and pop in practice film, using the video to overcome speed and experience disadvantages the best they can.

"I am slowly making progressions the best I can," O'Neill said. "I consider myself a perfectionist. If I have a good day at practice, I still know I can do better in some aspects. The only way to get better is to study film in your off time and try to pick up little tendencies by the offensive linemen and try to read the keys."

While Borland didn't have the luxury that O'Neill had of coming from a similar defense, Borland has the athleticism to be a multi-purpose player.

Recruited simply as a linebacker, Doeren wasn't positive what position Borland would start out at when he arrived in the summer. When Elijah Hodge transferred, it became apparent that Borland was going to be at the middle position. When UW suffered injuries to their depth on the outside, it was apparent that Borland was going to be on the perimeter.

Needless to say, Borland goes where the work takes him.

"Chris is fast, he's physical and an amazing athlete," linebacker Culmer St. Jean said. "It's great to have depth. They are learning fast and they are hungry. They aren't sitting back and watching. They are making fast mistakes, which are easy to correct."

Putting on 20 pounds in the last year, Borland has seen his athleticism increase, prompting to say he's a better athlete than when he ran for 1,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and had 72 tackles as a senior in high school.

"I didn't really expect to play this yearly," Borland said, "but this program is based on taking advantage of opportunities and I knew that there were going to be some opportunities. I just hit the weight room hard, studied the packet they sent me of the first installs and tried to take my game to the next level."

So far, the results have shown. On a handoff to star running back John Clay, Borland broke through the line of scrimmage on a missed blocking assignment, and pushed Clay to the ground using primarily his upper body strength. Proving he wasn't a one-hit wonder, Borland leveled tight end Zach Davison, who thought he could handle him on an isoblock a day later.

"I am not just happy to be here, I want to improve and part of that improvement is playing," Borland said. "I want to make my mark on special teams, but I want to get the defense down and be able to step in as a linebacker. I want to be a Big Ten linebacker, and not be content with anything else."

The other member of the scholarship class is A.J. Fenton, a highly-talented athlete from Erie, Pennsylvania, that was recruited to the position despite holding the school's all-time records with 4,267 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns. Although he expects Borland and O'Neill to contribute this season, Head Coach Bret Bielema is excited what Fenton can bring with some time at the position.

"A.J. Fenton to me, you watch the linebacker play the last three or four days, he's jumped up, but he's never played true linebacker all by himself before," Bielema said. "He's been quarterback, running the ball, playing safety and he's really beginning to fit into it. I think this is going to be a good group."

After two weeks of camp, it's obvious to see that O'Neill, Borland and Fenton were forged from the same kind of metal. Being the first class of incoming linebackers to have as big an impact since Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy, and Jae McFadden came into the program five years ago, it's only expected that this group will draw comparisons when their careers are finished.

If they continue on this path, not only will they meet expectations, they can surpass them.

"Chris and A.J. are probably two of my better friends on the team right now," O'Neill said. "We have a great bond, especially all the linebackers. We're family as linebackers, as a defense and we help out each other every step of the way. We can talk about the transition, what we are learning and you can bounce things off each other. The older guys provide leadership and example and the younger guys you grow with."

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