- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Chris Borland's new title (inside linebacker) might not carry as much flair as his old one (middle linebacker), but his role remains just as important for Wisconsin's defense.
Perhaps even more so.
Wisconsin's transition from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with multiple looks under its new coaching staff places a premium on up-the-middle play. The nose tackle spot carries extreme importance because of the two gaps it must cover. The safety positions also are critical -- a big reason why the new coaches have moved players from other positions to address a lack of safety depth.
But the defense run by head coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda hinges heavily on interior midsection, Borland's new home.
"It's important in any defense to be stout up the middle, but especially in this defense because the philosophy is to force the offense to go sideways," Borland told ESPN.com. "If you're getting pushed around at nose tackle, or overrunning and misreading things [at linebacker], there'll be a seam up the middle. So you need to take on blocks up front and then still correct it in the second level."
Borland will be instrumental in a scheme Aranda describes as "inside-out." The 5-foot-11, 248-pound fifth-year senior will enter the 2013 season as the Big Ten's most decorated and productive defender. His career numbers not only underscore his yield but his versatility: 308 tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 16 passes defended.
A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Borland won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009 and will be on the radar for multiple national awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski) this fall.
"He is a big, big part of our success as we're moving forward," Andersen said.
Borland began his career as an outside linebacker before moving to the middle in 2011, when he recorded 143 tackles, including 19 for loss and five forced fumbles. An extremely effective blitzer, Borland has had to work on being a bit more patient in the new scheme, where he has to cover multiple gaps and can't flow downhill as quickly as he did in the 4-3.
While Borland has to ensure the middle doesn't open up to the opposing offense, his natural ball-hawking skills have shown up early in spring practice.
"The times that we do see lead plays or iso plays, there's a violent ending to all that when Chris is in there," said Aranda, who coaches the Badger linebackers. "He's got a great feel for being inside the core and being the running back per se, finding the daylight that the running back finds. And then when he's in space, he's able to drop his hips and match running backs and tight ends in terms of explosiveness and burst."
Andersen and Aranda knew plenty about Borland when they arrived at Wisconsin. Even before spring practice started, Borland caught Andersen's eye when the team had a dodgeball event as part of its offseason competition.
"I don’t know if a ball came within three yards of hitting the kid in 20 minutes," Andersen said with a laugh.
Borland filed paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board in December but did so feeling 70 percent certain he would return for his senior season. He received a late-round grade from the board and decided to stay and play for the new staff.
After forming arguably the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Mike Taylor the past few seasons, Borland is working this spring alongside young and/or less proven players (returning starter Ethan Armstrong is sidelined following shoulder surgery). Derek Landisch, a reserve linebacker the past two years, is among those who have caught Borland's eye.
"I can tell those guys are eager, they want to know how to have success," Borland said.
There's no one better to show them than No. 44. Simply getting others lined up correctly is "very important to him," Andersen said.
"He's a dynamic guy, very explosive player, has got a ton of pop in his hips," Aranda said. "Every day, we look at who is productive, and Chris has led in however many days.
"I don't know if there's one day he hasn't."