By TOM LEA
MADISON – Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong are slated to anchor the Wisconsin linebacker unit in 2012, but as far as continuity throughout the course of fall camp is concerned, the trio hasn’t had much of an opportunity to grow.
Considering all three players have had significant surgeries throughout each of their respective careers (some as recent as last spring), it’s important for the coaching staff to limit the amount of reps they receive during August with hopes of keeping them fresh for September, October and November.
In doing so, however, the trio hasn’t been entirely able to work together during the course of UW’s 16 fall camp practices to date.
“I saw them (together) the first week and that’s why it’s not a concern,” head coach Bret Bielema said following UW’s Saturday scrimmage. “It’s very tough on an offense when those guys are playing well and at 100 percent.”
So keeping them 100 percent (or as close to it as possible) has been one of Bielema’s main concerns so far this fall. During Saturday’s 44-play scrimmage, only Borland and Armstrong received playing time. Taylor, dealing with hamstring issues and not so far removed from offseason hip surgery, did not play.
“I just wanted to keep repping Chris because he’s getting better with every rep, just seeing things,” Bielema said. “You’re going to see a big jump in the ability that Chris Borland brings to the table.”
Knowing all three projected starters have missed significant time with injuries throughout the course of their careers it’s essential for the coaching staff to develop the talent and depth at each linebacker position.
According to Bielema, though there are certainly other players seemingly capable of chipping in too, sophomore Derek Landisch has separated himself to the point of being the No. 1 backup to each of the projected starters.
In 2010, UW’s first of two-straight Big Ten championship seasons, Blake Sorensen kind of filled a similar role. He was a utility linebacker with the ability to play each and every position, eventually finishing his senior season with 66 tackles and two interceptions.
Landisch, at least according to Bielema, is probably of a similar vein, but with more athleticism.
“Not to offend Blake,” Bielema said. “But Landisch is probably a lot quicker and more athletic. I love Blake and he gave us a lot of great reps, but I think Landisch is very special. He’s training at will (weak side) just because we think a year from now when Mike leaves he’s going to be able to pop into that role and play extremely well.”
TRUE FRESHMAN CONTRIBUTORS?
To the surprise of some, it seems as though freshman running back Vonte Jackson is in the running for playing time as a true freshman. Bielema said he could probably be utilized in most phases of special teams play.
Jackson, remember, suffered a torn ACL during the first game of his senior season at Kenosha Bradford last August. He missed nearly every snap of what turned out to be a state championship season.
Now, though he’s probably No. 5 on the depth chart in a loaded backfield, Bielema seems to believe his athleticism would be welcome on special teams, thus forgoing a redshirt season.
“I think he’s a good athlete,” Bielema said. “I think he’s got the ability to do a lot of different things. He’s going to be really happy when they tell him he can take that knee brace off.
“He’s got one of those bodies that athletically he can run really fast, plays with good balance and is a pretty smart kid. Those (are the) kind of guys we can’t get enough of.”
-Bielema said wide receiver Reggie Love is in the mix with six or seven guys that are battling for two or three open positions at the position.
-Vince Biegel, a highly touted linebacker, is also in position for playing time. At this juncture that probably depends more on the rate his ailing foot heals. Bielema said he expects Biegel to be in a walking boot for two weeks last Wednesday night.
-Jack Russell, a freshman from nearby Waunakee, is emerging as UW’s kickoff specialist.
“Russell is a very impressive kid,” Bielema said. “We all saw what he did at Waunakee. I saw what he did in the state championship game. I heard what he did in the all-star game. There is just something to those type of guys. One of the first guys that got in my ear about Jack Russell was Taylor Mehlhaff (former UW kicker).
“They had worked together independently. It kind of impressed me that he would say those type of things.”
-Dan Voltz will likely wind up as UW’s No. 2 center behind Travis Frederick. Bielema expects him to contribute as a true freshman.
-Reggie Mitchell, a defensive back, is also currently vying for playing time this fall.
Bielema also hinted that more young players may eventually work their way onto the field.
“There are a couple kids we feel might be valuable enough to play them in all four phases of the kicking game,” he said. “And they might be in a reserve role on offense or defense that could also add into the mix.”
-Senior running back Montee Ball may return to practice Monday afternoon in full pads for the first time this fall camp. It seems as though he’s made excellent progresses since suffering a concussion in a late night assault just days before camp began.
He did not participate in Saturday’s full-tackle scrimmage.
“(Saturday) was probably more heightened awareness than ever before,” Bielema said. “He’s doing a nice job and he’s catching the ball well. He’s really light on his feet.
“I think Monday you’re going to see a very excited No. 28 out there.”
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