Chris Borland a blast from the past
It's pretty easy to picture Chris Borland in a leather helmet.
It's not a stretch to imagine the Wisconsin linebacker playing ball at Camp Randall Stadium when the place had wooden bleachers, natural grass and a whopping capacity of 10,000.
"He is a throwback," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Borland can see it, too.
Make no mistake, he's loving life these days at Wisconsin. He's the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and part of a team pegged to challenge for the Big Ten title. But if Doctor Who suddenly showed up in Madison with a time machine and a promise to take Borland back to the 1920s, you get the sense the Badgers star would have a tough time saying no.
"I would have loved that," Borland said. "I probably have an accurate-enough arm to have played quarterback back then. Run the option and play middle linebacker. It'd be nice."
When Borland's on the field, anything's possible.
He has only played one season of college football, but he already can be labeled one of the nation's most versatile players.
"The little engine that could," Badgers safety Jay Valai said. "Chris Borland's a freak, man."
Wisconsin's 2009 season stats sheet bears it out.
Pick a statistic, and Borland most likely excelled at it for the Badgers last fall.
Tackles? Check (54). Tackles for loss? Check (10.5, third on team). Sacks? Check (5, third on team). Forced fumbles? Check (5, led team and tied for second in Big Ten). Fumbles recovered? Check (3, led team and tied for Big Ten lead). Quarterback hurries? Check (7, second on team).
Interceptions? Pass breakups? Blocked kicks? Check, check, check.
Kickoff returns? Check (7 for 106 yards, second on team). Punt returns? Check (1 for 25 yards). Extra-point attempts? Check (3-for-3).
Extra-points attempts? Believe it.
Borland converted three of them in Wisconsin's 51-10 victory at Hawaii in December.
"I'll never forget this," Bielema said of Borland. "After the game, he comes up to me and goes, 'Thank you, coach, I never thought I'd have an opportunity.' I didn't realize that was his first time ever doing it. I thought he'd done it in high school."
Bielema wasn't far off. Borland had punted in high school.
Although he played soccer for 10 years, he hadn't attempted a kick in a football game before. Borland admits he was nervous for his debut, but he came through.
And if he'd missed?
"It probably would have been the end of my kicking career," he said.
Borland did so well, in fact, that Bielema has made a standing invitation to the sophomore.
"If he ever scores a touchdown," Bielema said, "whether it be defensively or on special teams, he gets to kick the PAT. That doesn't happen very much in college football, so I want to give him a chance."
Despite the offer, Bielema likely will have to limit Borland's special teams duties this fall. It won't be easy.
It's football in its purest form, really. You can't hide. Special teams is a part of the game people take for granted, but you can win or lose games [because] of it.
--Wisconsin's Chris Borland
The 5-foot-11, 242-pound Borland has a bright future as a full-time starter at outside linebacker. But few starting linebackers in the Big Ten play on every special teams unit, as Borland did in 2009.
Is Borland too good to do it all?
"He wants to be involved in everything," Bielema said. "All of our guys that are major players, guys that are starters, we'll probably limit them to two special teams units for the year. It'll be a challenge because he's always volunteering."
Borland can't help it.
While growing up in Kettering, Ohio, he said, Borland watched video of former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer doubling as the team's place-kicker. Borland played on every special teams unit in high school until being limited to running back, wide receiver, linebacker and punter.
When he arrived at Wisconsin last summer, he had two objectives for his freshman year: make an impact on special teams and help out at linebacker when needed.
It took just three weeks for Borland to achieve Goal No. 1. He earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors after recording four tackles, a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown and a forced fumble.
"It's football in its purest form, really," Borland said of special teams. "You can't hide. Special teams is a part of the game people take for granted, but you can win or lose games [because] of it.
"I took it as an honor to be able to play on special teams early."
Borland won't question his coaches' decisions, but his preference entering the season is clear: remain on every special teams unit. He has even talked to special teams coach Charlie Partridge about adding kickoffs to his repertoire.
"He's unbelievably versatile," said Dave Doeren, the team's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "But at a point, there's diminishing returns if you wear the guy out. We've got to be smart about where and how much. I don't see him starting on four [units] and then playing all the snaps on defense, but I know if they need something, he'll be in there.
"I promise you if the offense said they'd needed him for 20 plays at fullback, he'd go do it."
Borland on offense? Oh, it has been discussed.
After spring practice, Bielema told all his assistants that if they saw a player who could help their unit, speak up. Every offensive coach brought up Borland's name.
"I think I'd be a good pass-catching fullback," Borland said. "But I don't want to say what I'd be good at. It's not really my style."
His style might be better suited to the 1910s than the 2010s, but Borland will make the best of it.
"There's more specialization nowadays, so I think I may have fit in a little bit better back then," he admits. "It's not like it is in the '20s where you literally played three different positions.
"But you can still dabble a little bit and get away with it."Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2010 SEASON PREVIEW