After an unbelievably productive 2011 campaign, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor entered 2012 as one of the best linebacker duos in all of college football. Together, they accounted for 293 tackles, 28 of them for a loss, and were counted on to act as the cohesive force for the Wisconsin defense last season.
And for the most part, they delivered. Joined by the oft-overlooked third wheel in Ethan Armstrong -- a former walk-on who did not earn a scholarship until last fall -- the unit often served as the most reliable group on the defensive side of the ball. For every wheel route that Taylor blew, the hyper-energetic Borland clawed through the trenches to make a how-did-he-get-there-so-quickly tackle in the backfield.
Neither could match their 2011 totals, but each grabbed at least 100 tackles as Borland finished with 4 1/2 sacks and Taylor lead Wisconsin with 15 tackles for a loss. Equally important was Borland's role directing the entire defense from his middle linebacker post, the man responsible for making on-the-fly adjustments to help the Badgers finish third in the Big Ten in total defense.
While the defensive line received significant praise for a surprisingly strong season, the linebackers stood at the core of UW's defensive success. Facing an array of dual-threat quarterbacks in a spread-happy Big Ten, the linebackers kept the entire defense from unraveling. After Nebraska's Taylor Martinez burned the Badgers for 107 rushing yards in the conference opener, they learned and adjusted. Ohio State's Braxton Miller managed just 2.1 yards per carry and Martinez tossed two interceptions in the Big Ten championship game, both a product of stellar play from Wisconsin's linebackers.
In 2013, Wisconsin returns two-thirds of that starting group, only now that two-thirds has become one-half as the Badgers move to a 3-4 defense. Borland, who will enter the season as a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate, will remain the lead general on the oncoming tour of duty, because he makes plays like this. But how do the others under his command play around him?
LOLB1 - Brendan Kelly, 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, RS senior
LILB1 - Chris Borland, 5-foot-11, 248 pounds, RS senior
RILB1 - Ethan Armstrong, 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, RS senior
ROLB1 - Vince Biegel, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, RS freshman
LOLB2 - Tyler Dippel, 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, RS senior
LILB2 - Conor O'Neill, 6-foot, 222 pounds, RS senior
RILB2 - Derek Landisch, 5-foot-11, 227 pounds, junior
ROLB2 - Jesse Hayes, 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, RS sophomore
Despite the fairly steep learning curve that comes with transitioning to a new base defensive scheme, the Badgers appear to have the ideal personnel for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4. The inside linebackers -- especially Borland -- are slightly undersized but exceptionally quick and should thrive with two bigger linebackers bookending them on the edges. Borland is a capable pass-rusher and the confusing looks possible in a four-linebacker set may create more opportunities for him to blitz.
On the left edge, the 6-foot-6 Kelly looks to have the right physical tools to be a stand-up rusher who can drop into pass coverage as necessary. Though he is a bit big for a linebacker, the Minnesota native showed spurts of tremendous athleticism last year, maybe the most important attribute for any 3-4 linebacker.
Just a few weeks ago, the outside linebacker spot opposite Kelly -- the predicted home of former defensive end David Gilbert -- was the most intriguing spot on the defense. But after Gilbert's sudden departure, it may be redshirt freshman Vince Biegel's time to shine. Biegel was the top-rated player in Wisconsin in the class of 2012 and should be ready for the starting gig. He's an inch shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Gilbert, but still has enough size to play on the outside edge.
The unifying strengths among UW's linebackers are the group's experience and depth. As noted above, Borland and Armstrong anchored this defense last year and Kelly is the veteran's veteran as he begins his sixth year of eligibility. All three have seen the field in at least 12 games for each of the last two seasons. So aside from that second outside spot, the boneheaded mistakes expected of younger players should be few and far between.
A less exciting commonality between Borland, Kelly and Armstrong is that all three are injury-prone. But fear not, because Dippel, O'Neill and Landisch are very capable backups. O'Neill and Landisch both filled in for an injured Borland in UW's final two regular-season games in 2012 and are proven special teams players ready to throw on a helmet and take the place of a fallen teammate.
As exciting as it is to let your imagination run wild with the convoluted, quarterback-befuddling sets Aranda is drawing up on his office whiteboard, such a transformation is not without its roadblocks. What if Borland simply is not the same ball-chasing bloodhound when he shares the middle spot with Armstrong? What if Kelly has a tough time finding his groove a few yards back from the line of scrimmage?
Even if the transition goes as planned, such a large overhaul likely means mental mistakes that will grow much less frequent after a few years of seeing how this whole thing plays out in a live game. This should not be too much of a crippling issue in 2013, but it deserves consideration. It's more than the usual challenge of developing chemistry with a fresh face who just slid in to the spot of a graduated senior.
Losing Gilbert was also a serious blow to this linebacking corps. He had arguably the highest ceiling of any member of the Badgers' defense and even expressed his excitement at moving off the defensive line to an outside linebacker spot. Gilbert's speed and athleticism indeed made him someone that looked poised to thrive as a stand-up defender, but now we are forced to sit and ponder what could have been.
Aside from those issues, there are no heart-pounding questions surrounding Wisconsin's linebackers. Laden with experience and hyper-efficient players, the largest remaining barrier will be how much ground they can cover to help out a young secondary once the aerial attacks begin.