Chris Borland politely, quietly and eloquently answered questions in a hotel ballroom last week, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup between responses. He looked at ease in his navy blue suit, contemplating the schematic differences between a 4-3 and 3-4 defense, extolling the virtues of a new head coach and sharing his own story of personal triumph.
In another setting, perhaps he could’ve passed for a college student meticulously preparing for his first job interview. Despite his broad shoulders, Borland did not resemble the kind of physical specimen that would make opposing offenses shudder on the football field.
But then, that’s exactly the point. Take off the suit and tie, put on a uniform and some shoulder pads, and suddenly Borland transforms into a hulk of a man, whose pent-up aggression and smarts on the field draw double takes and double teams.
Borland, Wisconsin’s 5-foot-11, 246-pound senior linebacker, possesses athletic traits rarely seen on the football field from a player at his position. Those attributes are part of the reason CBSSports.com placed Borland this offseason on its “Freaks list” as one of “the 20 craziest athletes in college football.” He ranked ninth, on the same list as South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney and Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The reasons: Borland does a standstill box jump of 51 inches, he kicks 40-yard field goals, punts 50 yards, catches passes with one hand and throws the ball 50 yards as well. Oh, and he’s also a pretty good linebacker.
Borland, whose humble and hardworking nature has made him a hit with teammates, described himself as “kind of uncomfortable” even discussing the topic of making such a list.
“Those things come out, I guess fans like it or something,” Borland said. “We’ve got a lot of freaks.”
Still, others have taken notice of his talents.
First-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen recalled watching a game on the Big Ten Network last season in which a running back attempted a cut block on Borland, who leaped over the player to record a tackle for a loss.
“I rewound it 10 times like, ‘Good night,'” Andersen said. “That’s just an unbelievable play. He can wow you, which is good.”
Andersen said the most athletic thing he’d seen from Borland was when he attempted — and landed — a backflip on the practice field. And even though some of those athletic qualities come naturally to Borland, he’s still worked for everything he has earned on the field at Wisconsin.
“His athleticism is off the charts,” Andersen said. “If he wants to kick it, he’ll kick it. If he wants to throw it, he’ll throw it. Whatever he wants to do. A lot of things I would say come easy to him. But the things that come easy to him haven’t stopped him from working harder to be the best. That’s his mental approach.
“He knows our defense probably better than anybody on the whole defensive side of the football, and that’s saying a lot because there’s a lot of kids on that side that take a lot of time to understand that scheme. That’s why I think he’ll be so successful at the next level after he goes through this season is because he’s the whole package.”
What makes Borland’s story so remarkable is that most college programs didn’t even know what type of package Borland had to offer while in high school. Borland grew up in Kettering, Ohio, and was an all-conference player as a junior at Archbishop Alter. But he weighed only about 205 pounds, wasn’t particularly tall and was being recruited to play a position — linebacker — that he hadn’t even played in high school. During his junior season, he played running back, wide receiver, punter and kicker.
But Borland knew he wanted to play football at Wisconsin. His father once lived in Madison and played football at Edgewood High School. His late grandmother was a diehard Green Bay Packers fan when she lived in the Kenosha area. Plus, Borland remembered watching Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl teams under former coach Barry Alvarez.
So Borland showed up at one of Wisconsin’s three-day summer camps before his senior season determined to make an impression.
“I wasn’t on their radar,” Borland said. “I wasn’t on anybody’s radar.”
One day, Borland ran pass routes. Another, he tried his hand as a linebacker. Another, he boomed punts 50 yards and kicked field goals. When former Badgers coach Bret Bielema saw Borland’s willingness to try anything — and his success in doing it — he offered Borland a scholarship. It was Borland’s only Division I offer, and he gladly accepted.
“I was going to go home, but they asked if anybody had kicking experience, and I thought it might be a way to get noticed,” Borland said. “That was the first time coach B came up to me. I’m glad I punted and kicked, that they asked.”
Since that time, Borland has earned a reputation as a fierce competitor who rarely comes off the field. He spent his freshman season learning to play linebacker, focusing more on gaps and schemes rather than simply chasing after the ball carrier. Although he endured season-ending shoulder surgery one year later in 2010, he took a redshirt season and eventually returned to full strength.
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. His 33 career starts are tied with defensive end Ethan Hemer for most on the team, and he is a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection.
“It is wild,” Borland said of his progress since high school. “I think I got overlooked for reasons that were out of my control. Height and position. I always knew when I was going to these camps that I could play with the guys who were highly recruited. I was never really unsure of myself. It was just a matter of getting to this next level and performing.”
Last week during the Big Ten media days in Chicago, Andersen didn’t hesitate to call Borland the best linebacker in the country.
Borland, naturally, deflected such praise.
“It’s great to hear that,” Borland said. “That said, those are just words, so I’ve got to play well this fall and prove him right.”
If Borland plays as well as his coach expects, he’ll likely find himself on an NFL team a year from now. Borland is rated as the No. 3 inside linebacker prospect for 2014, according to nfldraftscout.com. He already is projected to go in the fourth or fifth round.
But Borland won’t let the future cloud his goals for the present. He has one more season to back up his coach’s words by displaying the kind of power and athleticism blend that rarely comes along. Freak or not, he’ll continue doing the same things that allowed him to reach this point, holding a chip on his shoulder while trying to win as many games as possible at Wisconsin.
“I’m not out there thinking I’m an underdog or anything,” Borland said. “But I don’t think myself or our team gets as much respect as maybe we deserve.”