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January 12, 2014
Report Card: Linebackers
Wisconsin's 2013 football season is in the books, so it's time to pass out our position grades after the Badgers finished the year 9-4 with a 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
It's on to the linebackers after we reviewed Wisconsin's defensive line yesterday. Just like the defensive line the Badgers had a lot of experience to work with in Dave Aranda's first year as defensive coordinator, but did they take advantage of all those reps? Our grades are included below.
John Veldhuis: The Badgers had a lot of talent to work with at linebacker, which is why I thought they could have used a situational 3-4 package even before Gary Andersen and Aranda came to town. Instead Andersen and Aranda decided to make a complete switch to the odd front, which put more pressure on the likes of Chris Borland and the rest to make plays.
Borland did his part, but the Badgers probably didn't get quite the level of production they were looking for out of Brendan Kelly and the other outside linebackers. The 3-4 is designed to give linebackers a chance at the "glory" stats, but the Badgers finished the year 6th in the Big Ten with just 25 sacks. The linebackers did well in run support, but moving forward the Badgers are going to need to find more playmakers like Borland at linebacker if they want to keep their defense at or near the top of the Big Ten in scoring defense.
Jon McNamara: Chris Borland, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, was the heart of Wisconsin's defense this year. The senior finished career sixth all-time at UW in total tackles (420) and will leave a huge void to fill in 2014. Outside of Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill were solid, while sixth-year senior Brendan Kelly didn't provide much of an impact at outside linebacker, though he did lead the team with 4.5 sacks. Youngsters Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel played at a high level in reserve roles. Those two, along with Derek Landisch, will likely be the core of Wisconsin's linebacker group next fall. Keep a close eye on freshmen Alec James and Leon Jacobs this spring.
Jon Gorman: Like the defensive line, much was in flux with the move to the 3-4. Also much like the defensive line, the results were mixed. Chris Borland was his usual disruptive self all season, causing havoc in every game he played in. The issue for Wisconsin, however, was that the production declined rapidly after him. Conor O'Neil and Ethan Armstrong were no more than solid, and Brendan Kelly failed to live up to the hype surrounding his name coming into the year. The good news for the Badgers, however, is the young talent that progressed as the season went on. Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert have a bright future as bookends in the linebacker corps and if the Badgers can find some answers in the middle, this unit should be a real strength going forward.
Zack Miller: Chris Borland was not only the best defensive player on the Badgers this season, but the best player on the defensive side of the ball in the conference - as evidenced by the linebacker taking home the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Borland was third in the conference in tackles (112) and he did so in just 12 games. Where the Badgers will really miss Borland, however, is in terms of turnovers where he matched the Big Ten record for career forced fumbles (14). Brendan Kelly was the team's leader in sacks and finished t-16th in the conference with 4.5, but never fully lived up to his potential. While Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert provided some home for a bright future at the position, replacing Borland - much like defensive line is finding out in the post-J.J. Watt era - is no easy task.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.