March 19, 2011

Spring outlook: Linebackers

One of the more underrated aspects of last year's run to the roses was the play of a veteran unit of linebackers. Culmer St. Jean played some solid football all season long in the middle and Blake Sorensen, particularly when Chris Borland went down early in the year, played absolutely huge.

Unfortunately, entering a spring camp where Borland and Ethan Armstrong will both be extremely limited if not held out entirely, those veteran players will no longer be able to pick up the slack.

Instead, the onus will be placed firmly on veteran Mike Taylor, who's also had a streak of injuries throughout his career, to be the voice of reason throughout the five-week practice schedule.

In addition to Taylor, expect safety transplant Kevin Claxton to get plenty of run at the middle linebacker position. Having started his career in the defensive backfield, Claxton has seemingly moved to the middle linebacker position without too many hiccups.

But having not played extensively as a starting linebacker, there are still plenty of questions to be answered this spring. That's essentially the beauty of spring ball. With so many players trying to break into the positional fray, particularly with key injuries to a couple of projected starters, the next five weeks of practice should be absolutely intriguing.

Look for guys like A.J. Fenton, Conor O'Neill, Nick Hill, Josh Harrison and Marcus Trotter to get plenty of reps. Another intriguing aspect of camp that should be interesting to report on will be the style of new linebackers coach Dave Huxtable.

All early indications are that Huxtable has hit the ground running at UW. That should be expected considering he's a veteran coach that has risen to such heights as defensive coordinator. That big picture analysis will do nothing but help Huxtable mold the players at his position in an even more effective manner.

Looking at the position at a more in-depth manner, it seems much of the success the linebackers will have this spring will depend on Taylor. He's the one player about to begin spring drills that has received a bevy of important reps in undecided games. He's played as a freshman and he's bounced back from injury.

If he's fully healthy entering camp he could be the same explosive playmaker he was before suffering a torn ACL midway through his freshman season. Frankly, with so much inexperience at the position entering spring camp, Taylor is the key ingredient needed to build some momentum entering fall camp.

Claxton, who at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, has great physical tools to be an effective middle linebacker. His experience at safety, particularly in reading defenses, will also help him as the essentially quarterback of the defense. He'll have responsibilities of making calls that everyone will need to listen too. Middle backer is a position of leadership and it seems as though Claxton has that in him.

Behind Claxton is another Florida native that has taken an interesting path throughout his career. Conor O'Neill started his Badger career as a linebacker but then was moved to safety when Claxton was brought into the fold. Having practiced there for a number of weeks, head coach Bret Bielema didn't like the way he was progressing and decided to move him back to his original position of middle linebacker.

With relative inexperience at the position a guy like O'Neill could make a major push for playing time starting this spring.

Then there is Nick Hill. Hill was originally booted off the team for an alleged off-field incident, but based on meeting a certain set of parameters his head coach instituted for him, Hill was welcomed back to the team. Before being suspended it seemed as though Hill was starting to break through as a legitimate contender for playing time. He's fast, explosive and strong. He's a guy to keep an eye on throughout the next month.

Outside, this spring will present both Fenton and Cody Byers a fantastic opportunity to rise up the ranks. Fenton started gaining momentum with above average special teams play a season ago. He seems to be a guy that could utilize his speed and become an effective player laterally and in space.

Byers, a player that just finished his first season in the program, also seems to be making progress reshaping his body.

"I cut down," Byers said during bowl prep. "I was at 228 when I came in and I cut down to about 215 right now (late December). I'm feeling a lot faster than I was when I came in. I'm definitely stronger, also. Coach Ben Herbert is a great strength coach and he's got us working real hard."

Now, with his first winter conditioning training session in the rearview, it will be interesting to see how Byers continued to improve his speed and athleticism.

Over at the strong side linebacker position, Harrison and Trotter will receive plenty of repetitions while Armstrong recovers from his shoulder injury. It seemed like Bielema was high on Harrison at various junctures a season ago. He'll be a player to pay attention to throughout the entirety of camp because he seems to have a high ceiling.

Trotter, like Harrison, also possesses a bevy of physical tools that should allow him to compete during his first spring camp. He's fast, smart and technically savvy for a young player and that should benefit his prospects as camp continues on.

It will also be interesting to see how Cameron Ontko plays during his first season at spring camp. He seems to have pretty solid size and a good motor to become effective at this level. It may not happen this spring, but if for nothing else, he'll get plenty of opportunities.

And there lies the beauty of spring drills. Guys who may be under the radar like Willie Resop, Coddye Ring-Noonan and Ben Ruechel will have a chance to storm up the charts with solid and consistence play.


During his pro day meeting with reporters, I thought it was interesting when Bielema said they were teaching Borland the ins and outs of the middle linebacker position. That says one of two things to me. One, and probably least likely, they aren't necessarily thrilled with what they have in the middle. Or two, and probably most likely, they just figure there's no harm in having Borland become more versatile.

It will be interesting to see how guys that haven't necessarily been in a position to push for legitimate playing time before in their careers handle that opportunity now. It will make for several contested positional battle that will start this spring and probably won't end until next fall.

It seems as though Taylor, Claxton and Harrison will enter camp as starters. But that could all change once some of the injured players start regaining their health.








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