Chris Borland leads solid set of UW linebackers

This is the seventh in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 5 start of practice.

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7

Projected starter(s): Ethan Armstrong (redshirt senior), Chris Borland (redshirt senior), Brendan Kelly (redshirt senior), Vince Biegel (sophomore)

Key backups: Sherard Cadogan (redshirt junior), Nick Hill (redshirt senior), Derek Landisch (junior), Conor O’Neill (redshirt senior), Jake Rademacher (redshirt freshman), Ben Ruechel (redshirt junior), Joe Schobert (sophomore), Marcus Trotter (redshirt junior)

The breakdown: Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong are the most experienced returning linebackers from last year’s unit, and that’s as good of a place to start as any for Wisconsin. Borland finished second in the preseason defensive player of the year voting to Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier because he has a knack for disrupting offenses all over the field.

Last season, Borland recorded 104 tackles with 10 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and six pass deflections. During the offseason Borland was ranked ninth in a CBSSports.com “Freaks list” as one of “the 20 craziest athletes in college football” because of his ability to kick field goals, punt, throw and catch. Of course, it’s his tackling that has garnered most of the attention.

In the past two seasons, Borland has registered 247 total tackles with 29 tackles for a loss, 13 pass deflections and two interceptions. He has 13 forced fumbles in his career, one shy of tying the all-time FBS record.

Armstrong is another reliable player in the linebacker unit after tallying 93 tackles last season. He has played in 39 games with 16 starts and should be at full strength after undergoing offseason surgery.

With the departure of David Gilbert, who cited multiple foot injuries for his decision to leave the team, the door could be open for sophomore Vince Biegel to step into a role as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. Biegel was a four-star recruit from Wisconsin Rapids and should be a perfect fit in the 3-4. His body type, at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, makes him more of a so-called “tweener” between linebacker and defensive end, but he should be able to move around in space and pursue the passer.

The other outside linebacker is expected to be Brendan Kelly, who will move from his former position as a defensive end. Kelly recorded 28 tackles with six tackles for a loss and five sacks last season. He sat out spring practices while recovering from an injury but should be healthy for fall camp.

During the spring, Kelly, a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder from Eden Prairie, Minn., talked about the importance of no longer having to worry about matching up against massive offensive linemen that outweigh him by 50 pounds, as he did in Wisconsin’s 4-3 defense. Now, he can focus on speed and agility.

“You definitely train much different,” he said in the spring. “I was training my whole career here to get down in a 3-point stance every play and going against someone every single play. Now it’s like I’m going to be in space. It’s not so much I’ve got to get in the weight room, I’ve got to squat this, I’ve got to bench this. It’s more like how are my movement skills? How are my reaction skills? What’s my eye training like? Every little aspect you can get to be more athletic. I love it.”

Best position battle: Wisconsin has several linebackers fighting to be backups, and each could see significant time on the field given the way the Badgers rotate players. In particular Derek Landisch (28 tackles last season), Conor O’Neill (15 tackles) and Marcus Trotter (five tackles) should see the field in some capacity.

One player to watch this season is sophomore Joe Schobert. Head coach Gary Andersen has raved about Schobert’s development, and he makes for an especially feel-good story because he had planned on walking on at North Dakota before attending Wisconsin. Schobert could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and played eight games last season contributing on special teams.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan State; 2. Ohio State; 3. Iowa

Michigan State had the Big Ten’s best scoring defense last season (16.3 points), as well as total defense numbers (274.4 yards per game) and rushing defense (98.6 yards). The linebackers were a big reason for the Spartans’ success, and they should continue to shine in 2013. Leading tackler Max Bullough (111 tackles) returns, as does Denicos Allen (79 tackles). Throw in Taiwan Jones (38 tackles) and Kyler Elsworth (10 tackles), and this is as good as it gets in the Big Ten.

Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier is arguably the best linebacker in the Big Ten and returns after recording 115 tackles with 17 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Sophomores Cam Williams and Joshua Perry, as well as junior Curtis Grant, should give Ohio State one of the best linebacker units in the conference.

Iowa, meanwhile, is absolutely loaded at linebacker with three senior starters coming back: Anthony Hitchens (124 tackles), James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) return. It’s a good bet all three tally at least 100 tackles in 2013.

Wisconsin falls just outside the top three despite a unit that includes Borland and Armstrong. We’ll have to see how the rest of the linebacker corps adjusts to a 3-4 defense.

Linebacker Derek Landisch on the 3-4 defense: “It’s an NFL-ready scheme. Coach Aranda knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure. We can give the offense a lot of looks. That’s important as far as they can’t just get a baseline on what we do week in and week out. We can change a lot of things up. It’s very versatile, so that’s a positive.”

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