Wisconsin star LB Borland a quick study
MADISON, Wis. — In football parlance, the "A" gap is the space between a team's center and its guards on the offensive line. It is among the most basic of terminologies, and for a college linebacker, understanding the difference in gaps is supposed to be second nature, as easy as pumping gas or tying a shoelace.
Chris Borland insists that when he came to Wisconsin, such jargon was lost on him. He had played running back and strong safety at Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, and excelled because of his athleticism and instincts.
"Even when I played defense in high school, I didn't know what I was doing," Borland said. "I was pretty much either blitzing or covering a guy. I wasn't even entirely sure what an 'A' gap was when I got to college, so I had a lot to learn."
Suffice it to say, Borland has learned quite well.
Borland, a fourth-year junior, has become one of the top linebackers in the country, even though he never played the position until his freshman season at Wisconsin. Last week, he earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for the fourth time in his career, when he registered 12 tackles, two sacks and two pass breakups against UTEP.
In typical Borland fashion, he downplayed his performance.
"I just got more opportunities to make tackles," he said. "There were some things I could have improved on."
Teammates and coaches are much more open to doling out praise.
"He makes decisions faster than normal football players," Wisconsin linebackers coach Andy Buh said, "and that's what makes him really good."
Last season, Borland tied for seventh in the country with 143 tackles. He ranked second in the Big Ten in that category, behind fellow Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, who tallied 147 tackles. This year, Borland has 34 tackles and again ranks second on Wisconsin's team to Taylor's 40.
Taylor described Borland's will and never-ending motor on the field as valuable components to his success.
"Even if the ball carrier is going to be tackled, you can see Chris running to the ball, trying to get to the ball before the other players and trying to hit him," Taylor said. "Sometimes guys tackle a guy and assume he's down, but Chris, he never assumes. He just keeps running to the ball. He can lay the wood and tackle well and he's got a high motor."
Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong noted that Borland's intellect was an aspect of his game that has perhaps gone overlooked. During last week's game against UTEP, for example, Borland was on the field representing the hands team for Wisconsin, as UTEP attempted an onside kick in the final minutes.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema shouted to his players that batting the ball out of bounds to avoid a fumble would be a smart play, if the opportunity presented itself. Heeding the advice of his coach, Borland stretched for the ball and knocked it out of bounds, allowing Wisconsin to take possession and win the game.
"The thing about Chris is he really studies the game hard," Armstrong said. "As much athletic ability that he has, how great he is with his hands, his feet, his strength, all that stuff, he really studies the game hard and you can tell that he recognizes things. He knows where he's supposed to be. He's fitting in the right spot. That's one of his biggest things is you know he's played well because he's studied well."
Still, success doesn't mean Borland's game is infallible. Bielema noted Borland sometimes attempts to do too much on the field rather than letting plays come to him. In addition to making 12 tackles last week, he also was flagged for a roughing-the-passer call.
"One of the hardest things to learn in sports is sometimes it's what you don't do that makes you good," Borland said. "I think I did press too much at times in my career. I'm starting to mature a little bit in that regard.
"It's tough. Especially in football because it's such controlled anger out there on the field and you're playing with such aggression that sometimes it is very difficult to be poised at the same time."
Minor hiccups aside, the 5-foot-11, 242-pound Borland has been a steadying force on the defense. This season, Bielema has entrusted the middle linebacker to rush off the edge in third-and-long situations, creating havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
"I enjoy it," Borland said. "It doesn't really matter what I think, though, as long as we're performing on it. Right now we've got good third-and-long statistics. We're hitting our goals on third-and-7-to-10, so if it's working, I'm all for it."
Borland's on-the-field triumphs are not simply limited to his position as a linebacker. Occasionally, he has been spotted at the end of practice attempting field goals.
His longest kick?
"He made one from 45 with his left foot," Buh said. "He's a righty."
Even if field goal kicking is a recreational endeavor, Buh notes that it speaks to one over-riding theme, which has propelled Borland to becoming one of the best college linebackers in the nation.
"He's an amazing athlete," Buh said.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.