Badgers' linebacker battle flies under radar

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By Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, August 26, 2013

MADISON--One of the more entertaining position battles during Wisconsin’s preseason camp probably drew the least attention: Conor O’Neill vs. Derek Landisch.

O’Neill, a fifth-year senior from Delray Beach, Fla., and Landisch, a junior from Arrowhead High School, are vying to start at inside linebacker alongside Chris Borland.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda doesn’t appear to be concerned whether O’Neill or Landisch, both listed at 6-foot and 230 pounds, opens with the No.1 unit.

“They’ll both play,” he said. “Whoever wins that job will start the game, but the other cat is going to get 20 to 30 snaps a game.

“They are battling every day. One guy takes a step forward and the other guy may take a step back. That is what you want, the competition.”

O’Neill is a three-time academic all-Big Ten selection. He has played in 40 games as a reserve on defense or a regular on special teams.

“I have to be consistent,” said O’Neill, who bounced between safety and linebacker early at UW. “I feel that in the past in fall camp I haven’t been consistent.

“I just have to go out each day and play like it is my last day because it truly is. This is my last shot.

“I am going to make every opportunity count that I can. I’m not going to let anything slip away.”

Landisch, who played on special teams as a freshman in 2011, has played in 28 games.

His lone start came in the regular-season finale last season at Penn State. With Borland sidelined because of a hamstring injury, Landisch recorded 11 tackles in a 24-21 overtime loss.

“I have to come out here and put my best foot forward,” Landisch said. “The inside linebackers have to be leaders of the defense. We have to be physical. We have to know the defense inside and out.

“I’m coming out here and it is strictly business. I want to show the coaches what I’ve got.”

Neither Landisch nor O’Neill can match the ferocity of Borland, who has been known to de-cleat opponents, whether they have the ball or are blocking.

Both, however, are bright and mobile.

And both players are eager to contribute in a scheme that uses multiple fronts and features blitzers from a variety of positions.

“This is the position I played in high school,” O’Neill said. “I feel way more comfortable. This allows me to be quick on the inside. I can jump from gap to gap and make plays in the pass game, the run game and blitzing.”

Aranda’s blitz packages generally gave the offense fits in camp. The high point for the defense—and the low point for the offense—came Aug. 15.

UW’s top two defensive units dominated the morning practice and overwhelmed the offense. The defense consistently recorded tackles for loss on running plays and sacks when quarterbacks Curt Phillips and Joel Stave looked to pass.

“We take pride in getting to the quarterback,” Landisch said. “When it is time to blitz it is time to bring it. Ultimately we hope that will force turnovers.”

UW’s offense struggled to pick up first downs, and both O’Neill and Landisch were in the middle of the action.

“We were getting to the quarterback on almost every single play,” O’Neill said, beaming. “It is a fun defense. It is hard for the offense to identify who is coming and who isn’t. We have so many different looks we can throw at them.

“A good way to describe this defense would be controlled chaos. We’re coming from every direction whether we are bringing three guys or four guys or up to six guys.”

No matter who is the starter, both O’Neill and Landisch expect to be in the midst of that chaos.

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