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Borland leads younger, better Badgers defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Chris Borland can force fumbles, block kicks and sack quarterbacks, but he's not allowed to sit on couches or ride elevators.

At Wisconsin, freshmen players are barred from lounging on the couches in the locker room or riding the elevators to team meetings. There are no exceptions, even for Borland. Freshmen caught riding the elevators lose their shirts. And we're not talking redshirts.

"Some guys have had to sit in meetings with no shirt on," Borland said. "I haven’t been caught yet. I’ve been threatened one time. So I still feel like a freshman."

There are other reminders of Borland's youth, like his face. He's been trying to grow a mustache, but it's been a struggle so far.

"I don’t even know if I’m at Adam Morrison yet," Borland lamented. "I’m trying to get to Jack Lambert, but that might be years away."

No. 21 Wisconsin hasn't had to wait nearly as long for Borland to blossom on the field.

Arguably no freshman in the Big Ten has made a bigger impact on his team than the 5-foot-11, 235-pound linebacker, who has recorded three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, five tackles for loss (2.5 sacks), four quarterback hurries and two pass breakups. Borland is the first Wisconsin player to both force and recover at least three fumbles in a season since Ed Bosold in 1972.

He has starred on special teams all season and moved into a starting role at strongside linebacker following a season-ending injury to Mike Taylor on Oct. 17.

Borland's emergence typifies the youth movement sweeping through Wisconsin's defense, which has made obvious strides this season despite losing six multiyear starters (five in the front seven). The Badgers rank 21st nationally in total defense (302.9 yards per game) and last Saturday shut out a Big Ten opponent (Purdue) for the first time in a decade.

Wisconsin's two-deep on defense is filled with freshmen and sophomores, including starters such as sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt, sophomore cornerback Devin Smith and Borland. Taylor, who led the team in tackles before his injury, is a redshirt freshman.

"I’m a freshman, so I don’t have a measuring stick for it, but I can’t imagine any other teams, or even teams at Wisconsin in the past, being as focused as this defense," Borland said. "The older guys have talked about how we’re playing harder this year than they did last year. We’re in full pads more, going longer [practice] periods and hitting more, just an attitude change around here, trying to re-establish that Wisconsin, hard-nosed, grind-it-out type of football."

While the young players provide a jolt, veteran defenders like end O'Brien Schofield and safety Chris Maragos are playing their best football in their senior seasons. Schofield, an afterthought last season, remains tied for the national lead in tackles for loss (2.06 per game).

"We’ve been able to gain some depth," head coach Bret Bielema said. "In this league, any time you can gain quality depth that allows you to rotate players through defensively, you can be a better football team."

Borland's goals entering the season were simply to play on every special teams unit and become a solid backup linebacker. But Bielema had high expectations from the time Borland attended Wisconsin's football camp last summer.

Borland showed he could do it all during the camp -- even punt and catch passes -- and he saved his best display for last.

"We offered him a scholarship," Bielema recalled, "and when he got off the elevator, he did a standing backflip with something in both hands. He’s got a tremendous amount of athletic ability."

So Borland did ride the elevator. But back then, he didn't know the rules.

"Now I know my place," he said.