UW football: Taylor's name written all over anonymous defense

2011-10-14T07:15:00Z 2011-10-14T08:30:01Z UW football: Taylor's name written all over anonymous defenseTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 | Twitter: @TomMulhernWSJ madison.com

The University of Wisconsin football team is tied for third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 10.2 points per game.

Yet aside from the team's fans, most people would be hard-pressed to name anyone on the defense.

That's fine with first-year defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who has cultivated the no-name concept with his players.

"It is still a no-name defense as far as I can see," Ash said this week as the No. 4 Badgers prepare to face Indiana on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. "I like it that way.

"It's not any individual that makes us what we are; it's us together as a unit. We're not full of superstars. We collectively have to play together as a unit to have success."

But based on the way junior linebacker Mike Taylor is playing, that could change.

With two Big Ten Conference awards for defensive player of the week — the latest coming after a career-best 14 tackles against Nebraska on Oct. 1 — word is getting out about Taylor.

Coming into the season, much of the attention at linebacker focused on Chris Borland, who was returning from shoulder surgery and moving from the outside to the middle.

While Borland's return has helped, a case could be made that Taylor's play is the biggest factor in the defenses's success.

Ash didn't want to go there, pointing out that "all 11 guys are as important as anybody. We can't afford right now to lose anybody."

Still, the linebackers have elevated their play and it starts with Taylor on the weak side. He leads the Badgers with 44 tackles, ranks second with four tackles for loss and also has an interception and a forced fumble. Borland has 43 stops and a team-best 2 TFLs.

Along with the tag team of senior Kevin Claxton and sophomore Ethan Armstrong, who have shared time on the strong side, it's a group that has excelled under first-year linebackers coach Dave Huxtable.

"The linebackers have to be great, all of them," Ash said. "They've really improved, they're playing fast and at a high level."

Taylor has benefited from the arrival of the detail-oriented Huxtable, previously the defensive coordinator at Central Florida.

"The thing with coach ‘Huxt,' he's really into the small details," Taylor said. "When we watch practice or we watch film, we barely get through the whole film.

"He just takes his time with every play. He can spend as much as five or 10 minutes on a certain play. He just goes over everything. You learn from that."

Huxtable was impressed with Taylor's athleticism and instincts, but also saw areas that needed work.

"I thought he played high," Huxtable said. "I thought he needed to use his hands better. ... The third thing is his key reaction. At times, I wasn't quite sure what he was looking at."

That was understandable, given all the practice time Taylor missed his first three years at UW. He was redshirted in 2008 with a bone spur in his neck, a leftover from his time at Ashwaubenon High School.

He became a starter in 2009, despite hamstring problems in the spring and preseason camp. He led the team in tackles and ranked third in TFLs before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Iowa in the seventh game.

Taylor started 12 games in 2010 while regaining confidence in the knee, and has been healthy since the spring. It's his longest stretch of mostly uninterrupted practice time.

"He's still learning the position," Ash said. "So last year was a learning experience for him. This year he has practiced a lot more. We tried to simplify some of the things for the linebackers. He's playing faster right now because of that practice time."

Huxtable praised how open Taylor is to coaching and the improvement he has shown in the targeted areas.

"Mike has really worked hard since I got here on the things we're trying to do," Huxtable said. "He's bought into it. I see him studying and concentrating. Right now, he's just playing really good football for us and needs to continue to do so."

Taylor always has shown good instincts, but now he has a better recognition of what offenses are trying to do as a result of his film study.

"I think that's probably the main thing I've improved on this year, seeing tendencies," Taylor said. "I know the last two years, it was worrying about where to line up."

UW has had only two first-team All-Big Ten linebackers since 1997: Nick Greisen (2000 and 2001) and Alex Lewis (2003). While it's early, Taylor is reaching that level.

But even if the defense's no-name status continues, that's fine with Taylor.

"We have a bunch of guys who like to play as a team," he said. "As long as we're winning and do our jobs, it's alright by me."

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