I got a chance to spend some times behind the scenes with Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland last week as he prepared to face Northwestern. Here's a snippet of my story:
[Defensive coordinator Dave] Aranda calls Borland "the perfect fit" for the 3-4 alignment he brought to Wisconsin this season. The scheme allows Borland more freedom to roam and make plays, and he has seemingly been around the ball on just about every snap this year.
He was especially destructive in the 31-24 loss at Ohio State, registering a career-high 16 tackles. That included both a fourth-and-1 and a goal-line stop of Buckeyes running back Carlos Hyde, a 235-pounder who isn't used to being stood up by just one defender.
"That was awesome," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who knows a little bit about linebacker play. "That's textbook. Sink and strike." What makes Borland one of the nation's top linebackers is his combination of strength, skill, preparation and experience. Few Big Ten players can match him on that last trait.
Borland has appeared in 50 career games because of a shoulder injury that limited him to two appearances in 2010. He recently bumped into a female graduate who had shared a class with him when he was a freshman. She first asked him what he was doing on campus before pausing and saying, "Wait … you still play here?"
Borland jokes about being an old man, but his experience helps him spot opponents' tendencies and figure out how to use them to his advantage. He does that so well that Aranda says he often gets tips from Borland. Like all Badgers players, he downloads game film and cut-ups on his iPad, which also includes Aranda's notes and diagrams on defensive plays. Borland said he watches about an hour's worth of film on his own time every day, and he takes copious notes on a yellow legal pad.
As he watched Northwestern film on Thursday afternoon, he guided a visitor through what he saw. He pointed out that the Wildcats had run the ball 71 percent of the time after gaining four or more yards on first down this season, and the depth of their running backs on shotgun snaps usually gave away whether they would run or a pass.
"If we get that, and that alignment, that's something you can really jump on," he said.
As Northwestern lined up for another play on the iPad video, Borland correctly predicted, "that right guard is going to pull." How did he know?
"Look at his head compared to everybody else on the line," he said. "It's like a full six inches back. His left shoulder is up, and his weight's on his heels."
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