Wisconsin LBs Borland, Taylor healthy, happy again
MADISON For most of their careers, the biggest thing Wisconsin linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor had in common were their rehabilitation programs.
Now, they are healthy and emerging as key playmakers on the Badgers' revamped defense, which lost defensive tackle J.J. Watt to the NFL and will face by far its biggest challenge of the season when No. 7 Wisconsin hosts No. 8 Nebraska on Saturday night.
"The first Big Ten game is a whole different stage, especially since it's at night," Taylor said. "With bringing Nebraska in, it's an ABC game and there's a lot of hype. You kind of have to let that be what it is and not really get overwhelmed by that. It's just another football game, but it is going to be a big game."
The two linebackers will be counted on to attempt to slow Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and tailback Rex Burkhead, the cogs in the Cornhuskers' powerful offense.
Both players had serious injuries that could have ended their careers. Coming into the season, Borland and Taylor appeared in just eight games together including seven in 2009 before Taylor injured his knee and one last season before Borland needed shoulder surgery.
"(I'm) a big believer that the only way you get good at football is playing football," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Those two guys, you can see them kind of feed off one another. And something I don't really pick up during the course of the game, but when you watch the film on Sunday, every time those guys are getting up, they usually are slapping each other or clapping. There's just so much energy there that's really fun to watch."
Borland was the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2009, but hurt himself early last year. In the offseason, he switched positions, moving to inside linebacker to take over relaying the calls for the defense. The coaching staff tried to bring him back slowly because Borland wanted to go harder than his body was ready for, and the lack of practice helped him think more about plays as they developed.
It helps to have Taylor back, too.
Taylor's career is pockmarked with surgeries — his hip, his hamstring, his knee twice. Since both have been on the field together, Borland is first and Taylor second in tackles, with the two combining for nearly 25 percent of Wisconsin's stops.
"Their linebackers plug holes and shed blockers real well," Burkhead said. "That's the biggest thing from watching them on film. They'll show their head in one hole and kind of throw the blockers off them and get into another hole and get to the running back."
Bielema said Borland is sometimes too aggressive because he has such good field vision.
"I always thought great linebackers were guys that were could erase mistakes, and Chris can do that," Bielema said. "On the same account, he gets ahead of things. He overran two plays on Saturday that were big plays for them. So I think the more games he plays, actually, the more practice he has, the better Chris is going to become and, fortunately for us, he's gotten better every game."
Borland and Taylor talk often on the field, a role Borland had to prepare himself for when he moved to inside linebacker.
"There are certain times where me and Chris will talk before plays, and we'll discuss what could possibly happen or what to look for," Taylor said. "It just gives you a sense of confidence knowing that you have a player that can trust you and you trust him. He'll watch your back if you screw up."
Borland said Taylor sells himself short.
"I think he's playing his best football of his career right now, and that's fun to see," Borland said. "It's good to see him healthy, and I love playing next to Mike. He's a tremendous player."
And there's a certain synergy between the two that has helped the Badgers hold opponents to just 34 points over the first four games. Borland said the chemistry he has with the group of linebackers is key.
"It's real, and it matters. Linebackers are supposed to be the pulse of the defense, and I think we're doing that his year — not just Mike and I, but Kevin Claxton and Ethan Armstrong — and we all have a good feel for one another, have a good feel for the defense," Borland said. "We're performing well right now."