April 24, 2010

Post spring camp: Linebackers

MADISON - Knowing both Mike Taylor and Chris Borland would be sidelined for the entirety of spring camp, the Wisconsin defensive coaches surely wanted to see one thing from the youngsters vying for reps.

Improvement.

Now, with spring camp in the rearview mirror, it seems as if that was exactly the case for several linebackers on the Badger roster based on their play over the past month and a half.

"It says we better get back soon so we can do some business, too," Taylor said. "I'm getting kind of nervous watching these guys and not playing. But it's just good to see those guys doing their things. You can rely on them to be in there if someone goes down.

"It's just good to see."

Starting in the middle, senior Culmer St. Jean probably had his best spring camp as a player in the UW system. He's always possessed the size (6 feet, 232 pounds), speed and athletic ability, it was just a matter of finding consistency at the point of attack and in pass coverage.

Through the 15 allotted practices this spring, it seemed as though St. Jean was finally starting to put it together. If that's the case, he can be a legitimate force in the middle of the linebacking core that would serve as a nice compliment to both Borland and Taylor upon their return.

Even though he was injured for a couple of practices midway through camp, it seemed as though St. Jean was on the verge of making a breakthrough towards the end of camp. Come fall, it will be interesting to see if that momentum carries through.

Outside, Blake Sorensen proved his versatility by playing both positions. As a senior, it seems as if Sorensen has focused on improving and helping the team in any way possible.

"He is moving all over," Taylor said. "He'll do whatever you want him to do."

Following a season where Sorensen proved serviceable behind Taylor and Borland, it seems as though he was focused on fine-tuning his fundamentals during spring camp.

"Using my hands (was) a big emphasis this spring," Sorensen said. "Otherwise I'm just working with coach Ben Herbert in the weight room. You can never be strong enough or fast enough. I'm just trying to continue improving my strength and overall game."

Outside of Sorensen and St. Jean, two of the most seasoned linebackers on the squad, it seemed as though Kevin Rouse finally started to showcase what his game provides with a healthy spring.
To this point in his career Rouse has been battling the injury bug and that has really hampered his ability to improve his craft. This spring, however, Rouse was able to participate in every practice and really seemed to relish in the opportunity to make plays.

"It's nice to have my body back to 100 percent and be able to mentally have everything down for the most part and just be 100 percent mentally and physically," Rouse said. "I'd like to think I'm out there making some plays and just really fitting in with the ones as much as I can. I want for them to have the ability to trust me and be able to put me on the field come the fall.

"That's what I'm working for right now."

At full health, Rouse proved he could be an explosive player. He is physical when taking on blocks and runs downhill when following through on a tackle. His pass coverage, though not bad, still needs some work but he's got plenty of time to make improvements to that area.

Come fall, one would assume Taylor and Borland will regain their status with the No. 1 defense (barring any setbacks), but Rouse is not going to let them have it easily.

"That's the way I'm approaching it," Rouse said. "When they come back is when they come back and we'll go from there. Right now, I'm going to take advantage of my opportunity with the ones and have the ability to push them in the fall."

Otherwise than Rouse, Kevin Claxton, Ethan Armstrong and A.J. Fenton made strides throughout camp.

Claxton, a safety turned linebacker prospect, proved he does not shy away from contact in his new role. While he is still relatively raw not having played the position, Claxton was decent in stuffing the run and solid at playing the pass. However, there is plenty of room for improvement in both those areas.

Perhaps the biggest, and most welcome, surprise of the spring on the defensive side of the ball, was the play of Ethan Armstrong. For Badger fans that were able to watch the spring game, it became obvious that Armstrong has intangibles and game instincts that continually bring him to the ball. In that game, he led all defenders with 14 total tackles.

And that was commonplace throughout spring camp. Still, while he was impressive throughout spring camp, it will still be an interesting battle come fall camp with the rest of the young linebackers as they jockey for depth chart positioning.

Finally, and in similar fashion to Armstrong, Fenton proved he has ball-hawking abilities as well. During practice, he was consistently in on tackles and even reeled in a fair amount of interceptions, including two from Jon Budmayr in one day.

As a young player, it seems as though Fenton has made strides even from his first fall on campus to now. He is learning the playbook and is starting to look like he's playing more free and easy in the box. He may not factor into the rotation this fall, but he will surely compete and add to the depth at an already deep position.


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