On a linebacking corps that features two of Wisconsin’s most explosive playmakers in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, a high stakes sweepstakes is underway for the chance to complete that trio.
But as Saturday’s spring game concluded the spring football season, the battle for the outside linebacker spot alongside this duo, both of whom surpassed the century mark in total tackles in 2011, has yet to be solidified.
It’s a rather pleasant problem for Andy Buh, the veteran linebackers coach who is in his first year with the Badgers.
“A lot of places I’ve been, we’re lucky to have that fourth guy,” Buh said. “We’re talking about six or seven guys competing for that third spot, that’s unbelievable.”
While Buh called Ethan Armstrong – who started two games last year while stepping in for an injured Kevin Claxton – the “frontrunner,” the Badgers boast three other players at the position with on-field experience.
Aside from Armstrong, the most experienced of those competing for the coveted third spot are a pair of redshirt juniors A.J. Fenton and Conor O’Neill, along with sophomore Derek Landisch. Likely the quickest of the group, Fenton would bring dangerous speed to the No. 3 spot while O’Neill’s strength would add another big hitter to the unit.
But as each works to leave a lasting impression on the coaches who will decide their fate, they all model their games after the success of Taylor and Borland. The duo, who both stayed healthy for all 14 games in 2011 for the first time in their careers, remained an ever-oppressive force on UW’s defense last season.
Taylor led the team with 150 total tackles, and not to be outdone, Borland used his speed to bring down opponents in the backfield and ended the year with a team-high 19 tackles for a loss.
“They more than set the bar,” Armstrong said. “They’re the standard that we all hold ourselves to, that’s how we gauge our performance and we look to them to be the leader of the group and to show us how things are done.”
As the lone player who has shared on the field with the two sure starters, Armstrong’s experience alone may be enough to take him to the top of the depth chart.
According to last year’s depth chart, he would fill in at the third linebacker spot, but Armstrong was sidelined all spring with a hip injury he sustained last fall. As he continues to rehab the injury that had him leaving the Camp Randall field by ambulance, he sees the opportunity to finally make a full recovery as a blessing in disguise.
“Now I finally have a chance to be healthy, and I’ve got a chance to really focus on building my strength and explosiveness and speed up to where I’m at least ahead of where I was at this point last year,” Armstrong said. “So I think that will almost turn into a strength, and while I’ve missed time, … I’m hungrier than the rest to get back out there.”
Behind Armstrong sits an intriguing option in O’Neill, who brings plenty of playing experience of his own after appearing in all 14 games last year. Despite appearing largely in a special teams role in 2011, the 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker managed 28 tackles in his second year on the field and could pose a legitimate challenge to Armstrong to get the starting nod.
Focusing this spring on increase the strength he will need if he fills in as a strong-side linebacker, O’Neill believes his time as an unheralded blocker and member of the kick coverage unit have readied him for an every-down role.
“Special teams is definitely a stepping stool to get onto the field,” O’Neill said. “To just understand the speed of the game, especially at the college level, I feel like I was able to come to my own at certain points of the season last year. Hopefully it will carry over into next year and carry over to defense.”
Fenton – who recorded just a single tackle last season despite appearing in 13 games – may hold a slight edge over O’Neill after an impressive spring camp.
With Buh and his fellow UW coaches continuing to evaluate a deep and experienced group of linebackers, the two first team All-Big Ten players alone should be enough to shore up any concerns about the quality of Wisconsin’s linebacker corps in 2012.
“I think it could be one of the best linebacking units that Wisconsin has seen in a long time,” Armstrong said. “I think that they definitely have that potential, and Mike and Chris have proved it, and now we just need a third guy to step up and show everyone what we got.”