Wisconsin football head coach Bret Bielema utilizes several catch phrases, but with starting outside linebacker Mike Taylor sidelined for the year with a knee injury, Bielema’s go-to clich? when speaking about team depth will face its stiffest test of the season yet.
The loss of Taylor — a redshirt freshman leading the team in tackles with 46 in seven games played — will put the onus on true freshman linebacker Chris Borland and junior all-purpose linebacker Blake Sorensen to replace Taylor’s production.
“You got an impact player like Mike Taylor who goes down — it definitely hits your team pretty hard,” UW senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. “At the same time we know what we have to do, we have to step up.
“I talked to both Blake and Borland,” he continued. “Chris Borland is actually my hotel roommate, and I just tried to tell him, you are young, you are very gifted, just go out there and make plays.”
Ideally, Sorensen and Borland will combine their respective strengths to minimize the loss of one of UW’s top playmakers.
Technically receiving the start against Purdue Saturday, Borland will try to transfer the success he has had rushing the quarterback on third down to making plays in the 4-3 base defense. Filling in for the injured Taylor against Iowa two Saturdays ago, Borland led the team in tackles with 10, but the humble freshman said he blew several assignments he must learn from.
“Some of those tackles came about because of my mistakes,” Borland said. “They threw the ball to the guy and I forgot to cover once … the statistics aren’t everything and I need to clean up my play a little bit.”
Unlike the true freshman Borland, Sorensen can line up anywhere among the linebackers and be confident in his assignment.
It is reacting and creating a play where the Minnesota native could take a page from Borland’s playbook.
“[The other linebackers] kind of give me a hard time, you know, ‘you just do the right thing, you don’t make any plays,’” Sorensen, who has only 15 tackles for the season, said. “So that is the next step.”
While Borland has been mostly limited to special teams play (where he has blocked a punt) and pass rushing from Wisconsin’s “Badger package” — a 3-3-5 defense defensive coordinator Dave Doeren likes to employ on third downs — Borland and his teammates are confident he can handle a bigger workload and avoid the proverbial “rookie wall.”
Second on the team with 2.5 sacks and tied for first with two forced fumbles, Doeren said keeping Borland fresh to attack the quarterback has a priority when it comes to divvying out reps.
Limiting him in practice after the bye week, Borland and his 235-pound body should handle the remaining Big Ten games just fine.
“I played both [offense and defense] in high school, I played special teams in high school, so the first few games [at Wisconsin] I kind of felt like I hadn’t even played a complete game when it was over,” Borland said. “So I think I can handle a bigger workload.”
The elder statesmen of the linebacking group, McFadden, vehemently agrees.
“Chris man, he is bigger than me,” McFadden said. “He is over 230 (pounds), and I have been trying to crack 230 my last three years. Chris is definitely a physical specimen. There are some YouTube clips of him doing some freaky stuff in high school, and he blocked a punt here doing stuff like that.”
As Borland tells it, shifting his mentality from rushing the passer to accounting for both the run and the pass in base will be his biggest challenge.
Where Borland’s quick first step and aggressive play are a plus for getting to the quarterback, those same attributes could hurt his production in the 4-3 if he plays recklessly.
“There are different things you do in base rather than rushing the passer, so you can’t really have the same mentality,” Borland said. “You have to be tenacious in both but a little more calm in base.”
Whether it is Borland or Sorensen, the Badgers are holding firm to the “next man in” platitude.
According to McFadden, Taylor’s absence won’t have a negative ripple effect of guys shifting in their roles.
“I feel like that won’t happen,” McFadden said. “We have a good rotation and we know what we have to do. We’re not really worried about a ripple (effect) or whatever.”