You would almost start to think that certain stars have to align in order for Wisconsin linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor to see the field together.
Taylor, a redshirt junior, and Borland, a sophomore who received a medical redshirt in 2010, have been standout defenders for the Badgers for the past two seasons, yet before last Thursday’s game versus UNLV, their mutual health had never lasted more than six plays as starting linebackers.
The luckless medical history of Borland and Taylor is such an anomaly that when asked before the 2011 season opener how eager he is for the two defensemen to enjoy playing a full season together, head coach Bret Bielema responded with a more modest aspiration.
“Well I’d love for a full game first,” he said. “Full practice and then a full game.”
Their playing time has always been defined by injuries, starting from the beginning in 2009, when both made considerable impressions as rookies.
Then a redshirt freshman, Taylor started ahead of Borland, then a true frosh himself, for the first seven games at outside linebacker before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the seventh game of the season.
By that time, Taylor had already established himself as a preeminent member of the Wisconsin defense. He led the Badgers with 46 tackles and had accumulated 6.5 tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble by the time of his injury.
But the void left by Taylor was quickly filled by Borland, who, in just six games as a starter, flashed numbers bright enough to earn him recognition as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He finished the season with 36 tackles, 10.5 for loss, five sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
With Taylor expected to make a steady recovery in time for the following 2010 season, Wisconsin appeared to have a well-fortified linebacking corps for a few years to come. But again, injuries had the two playing tag-team.
Borland started the season opener — registering five tackles and a sack — while Taylor looked on from the sidelines, his right knee nearly healed.
But Borland also injured his left shoulder in the opener, so a week later the two flipped positions; Taylor finally made his return from a season-ending knee injury while Borland nursed his shoulder.
The third week of the season saw Borland and Taylor pair up as starting linebackers for the first time, but it lasted just six defensive snaps. Borland aggravated the left-shoulder injury, inflicting more damage, and was subsequently shut down for the year with a medical redshirt.
Still slowed by his serious knee injury the year before, Taylor did manage to play out the 2010 season, absorbing a smaller injury to his left knee along the way. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss on his way to earning consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades.
And now in a young 2011 season, Borland and Taylor again swapped places from where they were a year ago. It is Borland coming off the season-ending injury, and it is Taylor who is coming off a season met with recognition.
With Borland’s move to middle linebacker and his rehabilitation in the offseason, the two linebackers can now go back to looking forward to wrapping up running backs together.
“[I’m] really eager,” Taylor said, with a grinning Borland peering around from behind his teammate to listen. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to the past few years; it got cut short last year. When we’re both on the field we just have a tremendous amount of trust. We love playing with each other.”
Against UNLV, the two linebackers led the way for defense. Borland had a team-best seven tackles while Taylor tied for second with six.
But as much as the Wisconsin coaching staff is looking forward to naming the oft-injured linebackers to the starting lineup week in and week out, caution still reigns over all else.
Over the course of the offseason, it was still a rare day when the two played with each other during team drills. Borland was inactive in the spring and has been in and out of team scrimmages this fall.
As a precaution, all players with past ACL injuries are exempt from scrimmages during the second practice of two-a-days, and that included Taylor, who is about a year-and-a-half removed from his own. He also missed three consecutive practices at one point when soreness in his knee arose.
Despite that, however, in an interview before the UNLV opener, Taylor said he’s the healthiest he’s been in quite a while, estimating his full health at 90-95 percent after spending last season between 80-85 on average.
Throughout August, Bielema detailed the cautious approach to reinstating Borland to full contact, even likening the process to those reserved for serious knee injuries. That approach also included lessons on avoiding reckless tackling.
The slow return to the game has tested the patience of Borland, but he knows it’s paid off.
“It’s been frustrating, but I think it’s a smart play,” Borland said. “I mean, it’s worked out, I’m feeling good. But at the same time I’ve gotten enough reps to get back into the swing of things from the football aspect, so all is well right now.”
Borland’s return isn’t notable for just his skill and past success at the position alone, but also because of the ripple effect it’s had on the rest of UW’s defense.
After the 10th day of practice at fall camp, Bielema said that, upon watching tape of a full contact scrimmage, he noticed the defense played better with Borland on the field and even singled out Taylor as someone who “played faster.”
Fifth-year senior and co-captain Aaron Henry, who plays just a few yards behind Borland and Taylor at free safety, agreed with his head coach’s assessment.
“Guys are just crisper,” Henry said. “It’s just faster, we get the adjustments faster. Guys are just going out there, flying to ball faster — it’s kind of like a race to the football when he’s out there.”
Collectively, and for the second year in a row, it’s back to square one for Borland and Taylor: maintaining health. Should they accomplish that, the rest will take care of itself.
“The sky is the limit but it’s going to take a lot of work,” Borland said. “We’re not nearly there yet … and we got a lot of work to do but, same old. We continue to improve every day, ready to do something special.”