Some of the University of Wisconsin football team’s linebackers decided to have an impromptu race recently following a summer workout.
It was 80 yards long and involved senior Mike Taylor and juniors Ethan Armstrong and Nick Hill.
The winner was Armstrong, which might surprise some people — but not his teammates.
Taylor turned some heads at the Big Ten Conference Media Days in Chicago last month when he said Armstrong “might be more athletic than me and Chris (Borland).”
Keep in mind Taylor and Borland are both fast, versatile athletes who made the All-Big Ten first team a year ago. Armstrong is a walk-on from Ottawa, Ill., with two career starts.
Armstrong can’t quite lay claim to being UW’s fastest linebacker, given not everyone was in the race.
“I didn’t take part, wasn’t 100 percent with my hamstring,” Borland said. “I let them run it.”
Would the outcome have been different if Borland had raced?
“At 80 (yards), Ethan might have me,” Borland said. “I think I would have won the 40 among linebackers. He’s just got the (long) stride.”
Borland wasn’t quite ready to concede the “most athletic” title to Armstrong, either.
“I do take exception to that,” Borland said with a smile about Taylor’s claim Armstrong could be the most athletic.
“Ethan’s a great athlete, though. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate just how talented he is. He’s fast, he’s got good size, can jump and run. He’s definitely one of the best athletes on our defense.”
Armstrong split time last season with departed senior Kevin Claxton at the sam (strong side) spot. But he had a hard time displaying his athleticism due to problems in both hips.
He injured his left hip during the season and kept on playing. He then suffered a partial dislocation of his right hip against Penn State in the final regular season game, leaving the field in an ambulance. That ended his season.
Armstrong had surgery on one hip in December and was on crutches for 31/2 weeks. His first day off, he had surgery on the other hip. Taylor had the same surgery on one hip. He and Armstrong were pretty much joined at the hip afterward, missing spring practices while rehabbing together.
“He was a little ahead of me in recovery,” Taylor said. “I would ask him things I could do or couldn’t do and talk about how it feels.”
After working his way up the depth chart to become the projected starter, Armstrong had to watch juniors A.J. Fenton and Conor O’Neill work with the first defense in the spring.
“It’s tough to sit there and watch, but it’s fun to see guys at your position playing well and really doing the right things,” Armstrong said.
That’s the way it goes for UW’s tight-knit linebackers: It’s a deep and talented group, which loves to compete while pulling hard for each other.
“I think everyone on the team has a ton of respect for (Armstrong),” Borland said. “He’s one of the hardest working, classiest guys I’ve ever been around.”
Armstrong had a total of four surgeries in a little more than 12 months, including a shoulder and finger.
“It was an experience, not one you always enjoy, but you grow from it and learn from it,” he said. “It let me have a greater appreciation for everything, because I realize something like this doesn’t always last and you can’t take anything for granted.”
At his low point in the offseason, Armstrong’s weight dropped to 209 pounds. “I wasn’t taking my shirt off for anybody,” he said.
But he was cleared to take part in summer drills and has since built his weight back to 237.
Being the team’s sam linebacker is a thankless job. The defense is designed for Taylor and Borland to make most of the tackles, which they did well enough to finish one-two in the Big Ten.
“You’ve got to have a guy with the right mentality to play sam,” Borland said. “He’s not going to get a lot of glory.”
The sam linebacker also must be fast enough to cover slot receivers, but physical enough to play over the tight end.
Armstrong is happy to let Borland and Taylor get all of the attention.
“I’m a walk-on; I don’t need to be talked about,” he said. “I kind of like it better that way.
“I’ll let them have the limelight and I’ll have fun playing next to them, just be honored to be part of that group.”