UW vs. South Dakota, Chris Borland interception

Cornerback Peniel Jean, left, and linebacker Mike Taylor congratulate linebacker Chris Borland, right, on his first quarter interception against South Dakota in 2011.

M.P. KING – State Journal

University of Wisconsin junior linebacker Chris Borland has never needed much work in practice to rush the passer.

In some ways, to Borland, it's just playing football. Turn him loose and let him get after the quarterback.

"I don't practice it," Borland said of his skills as a pass rusher. "That's not a good message for the young guys."

In fact, Borland likes to joke with the defensive linemen about how easy they have it.

"It's a lot of fun, just kind of getting after it with the D-line," Borland said. "We make fun of those guys all the time, for not being the brightest. There's not much to it."

Still, it's a valuable commodity and the Badgers are searching for impact pass rushers, which led them back to Borland. He has worked as an outside rusher in the No. 1 nickel defense in practice this week.

"They asked me how I felt and I said, 'Yes,' " Borland said, when asked if he lobbied for the role. "Nothing is set in concrete. We're just toying with things."

Borland made his first splash with the Badgers as a true freshman in 2009 playing on special teams. In his third game, against Wofford, he had four tackles, a forced fumble and a spectacular blocked punt in which he leaped over the wedge — a move the NCAA outlawed this season.

In his first Big Ten Conference game, against Michigan State, the next week, he displayed his pass-rush skills with his first sack, four quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. He finished the season with five sacks.

He didn't become a starter at outside linebacker until the eighth game, after Mike Taylor suffered a season-ending torn ACL.

Borland doesn't look like a typical pass rusher. He has admitted to being 5-foot-10 — an inch shorter than his listed height — and doesn't have much in the way of moves. But he has an uncanny ability to anticipate the snap, a good burst and a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to block.

"His favorite one is where he's put out there and they tell him to go wherever he wants and the other guy (next to him) covers off of him," UW coach Bret Bielema said.

After a redshirt year in 2010, which included surgery on both shoulders, Borland moved to the middle last season. The coaches elected to no longer use him as edge rusher, mostly because they didn't have anyone to replace him at middle linebacker. He finished with 2½ sacks, coming off blitzes.

"It wasn't something we avoided a year ago," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. Borland "was so valuable as a mike and we felt uncomfortable taking him out of that position.

"It's something we've got all over our thought process and our white board. The flexibility it gives you — you move him there, move an end in (over a guard) and you create athletic mismatches. You can do a lot of things."

The big difference this year is the improved depth at linebacker. Juniors Ethan Armstrong and A.J. Fenton are the coverage linebackers in the No. 1 nickel. Sophomore Derek Landisch and junior Conor O'Neill also can play at mike in different packages.

"They can do a great job at mike on third down," Borland said of the choices. "That will allow me to rush off the edge."

Bielema previously expressed concern about potential injuries if Borland is a rusher, saying it exposes his shoulders because his arms often are extended. But that's not an issue for Borland.

"I'm never concerned about that," he said. "You have less of a running start on the line than you do at linebacker, so any damage you do would be cut down a little bit."

As a mike, Borland has been outstanding during preseason camp. So the coaches must be smart in how he can make the biggest impact.

"In base defense, he's been exceptional," Bielema said. "I've coached a lot of good mikes — he's right up there among the best I've ever seen. ... You just see that big jump with mikes in their second year, when they haven't played it" before.