MADISON, Wis. - One of the headline stories throughout fall camp has been the emergence of true freshman Chris Borland at the linebacker position. Over the course of 17 days, the Ohio native has played every linebacker position, and has played well at that.
So, when the depth chart was released Thursday morning, it came as no surprise then that Borland had made the two-deep. What was surprising however, was the player he was behind at strong side linebacker.
Redshirt freshman Mike Taylor, one of the more explosive players on the entire roster, has found his way into the starting lineup. And with the move, junior Blake Sorensen is now listed behind Culmer St. Jean in the middle.
That move was rather shocking considering it only really flared up over the past few days. Couple that with how Sorensen was playing at a high level and the fact he was a projected starter and the scenario is all the more intriguing.
"The move wasn't so much 'we're not happy with Culmer' as much as it was 'we wanted to get the best guys on the field,' Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "Blake's a guy that's really competing hard. He's got great leadership and knowledge of our defense and I wanted to put some competition in the middle."
Prior to the move, it seemed as though St. Jean had all but wrapped up the position. The only player giving him any sort of competition was Leonard Hubbard. Then Hubbard went down with an injury that has sidelined him for a few days and the competition followed.
"I just didn't feel like we had enough competition in there right now," Doeren said. "It wasn't a deal where we were unsatisfied as much as what happens when that guy's not healthy. We need to have an option that that guy can go in and win games.
"We don't want drop-off."
Since losing Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy to the N.F.L., there was a bit of a void left open at the unit. Though the replacements were there, the depth was not as great as the coaches would have liked.
So, three linebacker recruits were brought in, including Borland.
"Through recruiting, I think we've brought in some pretty good young linebackers," Doeren said. "I don't want to stack up Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Jaevery McFadden all in one position.
"We got to move them around and get the best guys out there."
Because Borland has had such a successful camp, there was talk of potentially moving him to the middle by the coaching staff. However, as a true freshman with plenty already on his plate, Doeren decided against it and will keep him on the outside.
"I just didn't want to put it on Chris," Doeren said. "Being a mike, there's a lot of things you have to do from setting the defensive fronts. I just felt mentally, Chris would play faster if I didn't give him that kind of burden.
"Also, you've seen Chris in our third down package doing a lot of stuff and that kind of ties into the outside linebacker position better. So, it helps him being an outside backer when he's a pass rusher."
Shake up with back up safeties:
It seemed as though Chris Maragos and Jay Valai were set at the safety position from the get go. The way they have contributed throughout camp means nothing has changed.
But, after both Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant were indefinitely suspended, an opportunity for younger players to step in and contribute was granted. And, for the majority of time since the suspension, it looked as though Shelton Johnson and Kevin Claxton were primed to take the back up roles.
When the depth charts were released, only one of those two players was sturdily positioned as the No. 2 guy. The other, Claxton, was bumped down in favor of Josh Peprah, although they were only separated by an 'OR.'
"That's still up in the air," UW secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "Right now it's an open competition from this point probably up until next Wednesday or Thursday until we make that decision."
As a freshman, Claxton received a handful of reps on special teams and occasionally with the regular defense. So that alone should have given him an edge over true freshman Josh Peprah. But, that simply hasn't been the case.
"It's not that he's (Claxton) performing bad," Cooks said. "But, I just think that Pep, coming in, and showing us what he's showing us, and then the departure of Aubrey and Shane, you want to continue to build that depth.
"Pep is doing some things as a freshman that you just don't see a lot. He's made some great plays. He's a smart kid, he's asking great questions, so it's important to him and he wants to learn. So we felt, based on his performances up to this point, that we needed to make that move."
Peprah, hailing from Texas, has more of an advantage than most of the true freshman on the team, particularly the ones from Wisconsin. Because the weather is nice year round in Texas, he has been able to partake in his high school's spring practice during his prep years.
Players on the team were also forced to take a football class to help enhance their game IQ. So, it is that knowledge now that is helping Peprah shoot up the depth chart.
"I knew he was a smart kid, you know, obviously having recruited him," Cooks said. "I knew he was athletic enough to help us. Obviously, my plan coming in was not to count on any freshmen to be able to help us. But, I'm glad that we have him in our back pocket.
"He's at least thinking like a sophomore or a junior. He's probably not there reaction wise, and everything that you would like him to be. But he's going to be a good player for us."
Consistency is key at corner:
Last season Niles Brinkley was thrust front and center while Aaron Henry recovered from his knee injury. In his first season with quality playing time, Brinkley went on to lead the team in interceptions.
But, for every good play he made, it seemed a bad one would follow immediately behind. It's that inconsistency, combined with the reliability and consistency of Devin Smiththat dropped Brinkley down in the depth chart.
"I think that was Brinkley's biggest issue last year," Cooks said. "He's a big play, bad play guy. He's going to make a lot of plays and last year he gave up a lot of plays. I think that he's a lot better than what he was last year, but we still need to get that urgency for it to be every down.
"That's where his consistency comes into play because he's not consistent playing. If he can ever get consistent and be the same guy on every play, he'd be a great player for us."
Meanwhile, Smith has impressed the coaches from top to bottom with his ability to give the team the same effort and result on each and every play.
During the portion of camp where media was allowed in, it was a regular occasion for Smith to make an interception or complete a key pass breakup. He simply looked more confident and consistent than Brinkley.
"That is the key word," Cooks said. "He is a consistent guy. At that spot, that's what I'm looking for. I'd rather have a guy be consistent then have a superstar athlete out there when he's going to make five plays but he's also going to give up five plays.
"Devin's a smart kid. He's our nickel for us, he's our corner for us and he can do a lot of different things. He doesn't lose focus."
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