Spring preview: Linebackers

MADISON - Much like the defensive line, Wisconsin's linebackers have a lot to learn with the Badgers planning on rotating between a 4-3 defensive front and the 3-4 this season. The Badgers also have a spot to fill in the 4-3 alignment now that weakside linebacker Mike Taylor has moved on after graduation.
The 3-4 will also make a few defensive ends stand up and play at linebacker every now and then, so there will be a few fresh faces to work with on the field. On top of that, the linebackers will also be working with their fourth coach in four seasons now that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is on staff to replace Andy Buh.
In short, it'll be an interesting spring camp for the Badgers. Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong will be back for their senior seasons, but other than that we don't know a whole lot about the position for the 2013 season. With that in mind, let's look at the position's top storylines for spring camp.
Who steps up for Taylor?
As of right now, Derek Landisch and Conor O'Neill seem to be the top two candidates. Landisch played as a true freshman in 2011, and was listed as Taylor's primary backup on Wisconsin's official depth chart last season. He also drew comparisons to Borland for his motor, and was named Wisconsin's Rookie of the Year in his freshman season. Landisch has 48 total tackles in his career, two of which were for loss.
On the other hand, this is O'Neill's last chance to make a big impact. He'll be a redshirt senior this season and while he's played in all but one game during his career, he hasn't started at all for the Badgers. Of course, Wisconsin's depth at linebacker hasn't really helped him a lot during his career. O'Neill makes his name in pass coverage and is pretty athletic for a linebacker, which could help him a lot if the new staff wants to prioritize that. Gary Andersen said every player is basically on the same level for the time being, so O'Neill could be one of those players that gets an extra boost from the new coaches.
Keep an eye on Vince Biegel. Biegel was billed as someone who could have stepped in to help the team last year, but he didn't get on to the field and redshirted instead. Biegel was highly recruited out of high school, and could use this spring to show what he can do if younger players are given a lot of reps.
How will the 3-4 affect the linebackers?
The most obvious change will be getting an extra linebacker on the field, but at the same time the extra "linebacker" might just be a defensive end that the coaches plug in as a 3-4 outside linebacker. David Gilbert in particular is someone who will probably see time in this position. In fact, the Badgers might decide to shift two defensive ends back into the second level if none of the linebackers beside Borland and Armstrong really stand out. In any scenario, both Borland and Armstrong could play in the middle as inside linebackers since both players played as a middle linebacker at times last season.
What the Badgers end up doing with Borland will be interesting to see too. The Badgers moved him to middle linebacker before the 2011 season and he played very well there: he had 29 total tackles for loss over those two seasons. But the Badgers might be tempted to use him as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, since those players are usually the ones who pressure the quarterback and get the "glory" stats like sacks and tackles for loss.
Borland has been a great player despite the shoulder injuries he's had in his career, so it'll be interesting to see just where he lines up for the Badgers when they have the 3-4 front on the court.
Andersen stresses communication
In his pre-spring press conference, Andersen said that communication will be a big theme for the linebackers this spring. After all, they'll be moving back between a 4-3 front and the 3-4, which means they'll run the risk of being penalized for too man men on the field if they don't communicate well with each other and with the coaches on the sideline.
They'll also have to communicate well with the defensive line, since on some zone blitzes they'll be rushing the passer with a defensive lineman or two dropping into coverage. It's a confusing scheme to run sometimes, so the Badgers will have to make sure they nail down the fundamentals in spring camp.
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