No Badger is quite like Chris Borland.
Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year is a playmaker in every sense of the word. He forces turnovers, has a knack for blitzing off the edge and has even kicked extra points for UW.
But for the remainder of the 2010 season, Wisconsin will have to make due without him.
After reinjuring his shoulder against Arizona State, the UW staff has decided to shut the sophomore linebacker down for the year.
“Obviously it’s a big loss for us,” defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. “But after UNLV we kind of knew that this was a possibility. The good news is he has the redshirt year available.”
The question now for Doeren and his defense is how to go about replacing a player like Borland. Senior Blake Sorensen will directly replace Borland in the starting lineup but a number of players will be counted on to shoulder the weight of the star’s absence.
“It’s going to be by committee we’re not just going to say ‘he’s the next Chris Borland’,” Doeren said. “We are going to rely on a lot of guys.”
Sorensen already has five starts under his belt and while not a captain, the Eden Prairie Minn. native is respected as one of the core leaders of the UW defense.
That makes life a lot easier for Doeren.
“Blake is a starter here I don’t look at it as though he’s stepping in,” Doeren said. “He was going to play equal reps for us even without Borland’s injury.”
Sorensen’s strong point is his pass coverage and he’ll see plenty of action in UW’s base defense, but Doeren has a lot of options when the 3-3-5 third down “Badger” package is called.
Borland was arguably the Badgers’ best pass rusher and his now open spot off the edge in the 3-3-5 set gives some inexperienced players an opportunity to get after quarterback.
Enter Kevin Rouse and A.J. Fenton, two athletic linebackers poised to make an impact in Borland’s absence.
Rouse already has two sacks on the year and he’s showed some promise as a pass rusher in Doeren’s third down scheme.
“I’ve tried to step into that role from the beginning,” Rouse said. “I’m getting better and I’m just trying to help the team out in that respect.”
The redshirt junior has battled nagging injuries throughout his career at UW but now he’s healthy and making the plays fans were hoping to see when the Yorkville Ill. native first entered the program as a highly regarded prospect.
One of Rouse’s strongest attributes is his speed, which is on display when he’s in relentless pursuit of an opposing quarterback.
“I’ve always felt like my speed has been a big thing for me,” Rouse said. “I’ve dropped a couple pounds and been able to use my speed in a real positive way this year.”
Fenton, a redshirt freshman from Pennsylvania who has seen action in the 3-3-5 this season, has some impressive speed in his own right. No.17 has shown the ability to drop back in coverage and his versatility at the linebacker position brings more options to the UW defense.
“Athleticism and speed: those are the two main things that I bring to the table,” Fenton said. “It’s a freestyle position and that definitely suits me.”
The x-factor in this equation could end up being David Gilbert, a sophomore defensive end who nearly beat out Louis Nzegwu for the starting job during fall camp.
The Florida-native may be listed as a defensive end, but he’s no stranger to standing up in two-point stance and playing out of a hybrid-linebacker position. Once again, the 3-3-5 might provide an opportunity for a promising pass rusher.
“I’m just as comfortable going from the two-point [stance] and I was in that stance all through high school,” Gilbert said. “The coaches are comfortable with me there and I’m very confident in my abilities.”
Gilbert and several other Badger defenders are well aware of the increased snaps they may see as a result of Borland’s injury, but no single player is entering week four with the mindset of replacing the explosive sophomore.
For Gilbert, the key is playing within himself and letting the rest fall into place.
“We’ve been coached that you’re always one play from being a starter. And me moving into this position, I don’t feel pressure to replace Borland because we’re very different,” Gilbert said. “You just have to play off your strengths because we can’t go out there and try to emulate what he does.”