Badgers hone D’s edge’
Huxtable began rebuilding a unit that lost two senior starters, Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean, who finished first and third on the team in tackles in 2010.
Chris Borland, who is being moved from the outside to middle linebacker and is the likely starter at that position, was out while recovering from shoulder surgery. Ethan Armstrong, a reserve middle linebacker, was sidelined after undergoing shoulder surgery.
That left Huxtable with returning starter Mike Taylor at one outside spot and a cast of characters who had been used mostly in reserve roles.
Yet if everyone is healthy—particularly Borland—the unit could be better overall this season than in 2010.
“I can’t be more excited about this season, this defense,” said Borland, who was Big Ten Conference freshman of the year in 2009 but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3 last season. “I think the defense has a new edge to it.”
Borland started the final six games on the outside as a freshman in 2009—after Taylor was lost with a knee injury—and finished with stellar numbers. He led UW in forced fumbles (five) and fumble recoveries (three), finished third in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (10½), and fifth in total tackles (54).
The staff believes he can make more plays, from sideline to sideline, from the middle.
“I haven’t seen Chris play live but I have watched a lot of him on film, and he can be a special player,” said Huxtable, who spent the previous seven seasons at the University of Central Florida. “You talk about a guy that reacts fast and plays fast and plays with a low center of gravity.
“He is a smart kid. He studies the game. He is up there watching film. He’s got a notepad out. He is taking notes all the time. He is a workaholic.
“I’m really anxious to get him out onto the field.”
Had they been healthy, Borland and Armstrong probably would have been the No. 1 and No. 2 middle linebackers in the spring. In their absence, however, redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter emerged from a year on the scout team and worked with the No. 1 defense all spring. He was consistently around the ball, was physical and appeared capable of eventually moving into the starting lineup.
“He’ll make some mistakes because he is still young,” Huxtable said, “but I am really excited about him.”
Taylor, further removed from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his right knee in 2009, is set to start at one of the outside spots. He started slowly last season coming off the ACL injury and then suffered a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his left knee against Ohio State. He still finished fourth on the team in tackles (58) and second in tackles for loss (eight).
During the spring he lined up on the wide side of the formation and focused on being more physical against one-on-one blocking.
“Hux is big on getting off (blocks),” said head coach Bret Bielema, who served as UW’s linebackers coach and defensive coordinator in 2004 and ’05. “Mike is really good when he is free or unblocked or he can finesse his way over. But he needed to grow with a body on him, someone really blocking him.
“I thought Hux has done a nice job with block protection, and Mike is starting to shed (blockers) and make some plays and hopefully take his game to a higher level.”
Senior Kevin Claxton, who started one game last season, lined up on the short side of the formation in the spring. He appears more comfortable at linebacker after spending his first two seasons at strong safety.
“He got banged up a bit, and he just kept battling through it,” Huxtable said. “That showed me a lot, how bad he wants it.”
When spring practice opened in March it was unclear who would provide depth at the outside positions.
The emergence of A.J. Fenton and Conor O’Neill, both third-year sophomores, helped ease any concerns the staff had.
Fenton, who backs up Claxton, was more physical than in the past.
“He is playing faster, making plays,” first-year defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “He is doing things right. I’m happy with his progress.”
O’Neill, No. 2 behind Taylor, has bounced between strong safety and linebacker because he has struggled to gain weight. He carries only 220 pounds on his 6-foot frame but excelled in pass coverage in the spring.
“I thought Conor made a big jump,” Bielema said. “Conor was a heavily recruited kid.
“We tried him at safety because we knew he had ability. I think that might have helped him now because he is really good in the pass game.”