Linebacker Chris Borland gathered his defensive teammates before each of the final 13 games of his college career. As they surrounded him in the Wisconsin locker room, home or away, Borland listed off the expectations he had for himself and for the unit as a whole.
Borland, one of the San Francisco 49ers third-round draft picks in May, was the Joe Staley of his Big Ten football team. Now, despite his small stature, he's competing to join Willis in the starting lineup.
Funny then that Borland reminds Willis instead of NaVorro Bowman, the team's other stalwart inside linebacker.
"He's a little pit bull. I love watching him play. He reminds me of NaVorro," said Willis, who didn't recognize Borland on first glance. "They're real low, compact, and it seems like they never break stride. They're moving and they're always getting to the ball."
With Bowman (knee surgery) out until at least midway through the upcoming season, the stalky Borland will be challenged during training camp by veteran reserve Michael Wilhoite to fill the All-Pro's cleats.. As Gary Anderson, his Wisconsin coach, told us over the phone from Madison, Borland is used to performing under pressure.
First Impressions"I coached against him in 2012, when I was at Utah State," said Anderson, who then coached Borland in '13 when he took over the Badgers program. "As we got ready to play against Chris, I knew that this was how an inside linebacker plays football. I challenged my own son, who was then a junior in high school, to study Chris if he wanted to be a big-time linebacker, and I didn't know anything about Chris then except for how he played the game. When you prepare for him, he's better on gameday than you think he is. When you coach him, he's a kid that never ceases to amaze you."
Borland proved his football IQ when switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to Anderson's 3-4 alignment prior to his senior season. He made all the unit's pre-snap calls and served as its inspirational leader.
"Prior to every game, Chris was fantastic about flipping a switch to get himself and the team to a new level," Anderson said. "He did that week in and week out. I haven't been around many kids who could do that every week. He would bring everybody together. Not many words – he's not a man of many words – but when Chris spoke, people listened."
Greatest StrengthsAccording to Anderson, Borland's "elite preparation" is a quality he shares with another of the coach's products, San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle. "Chris is unique in the way that he approaches the game, and his pre-snap awareness will set him apart," said Anderson, who also coached pro linebackers Bobby Wagner (Seattle Seahawks) and Steven Sylvester (Buffalo Bills) in college. "He's so instinctive. He takes some chances, which a lot of the great players do, and most of the time, he's right."
Big Moment"There was a big play in the Northwestern game," Anderson said, recalling an Oct. 12, 2013 home contest, in which Borland recorded 10 tackles. "They were approaching the red zone, and Chris came up with a huge sack, and it was a big momentum swing in that game. It allowed us to go on and continue on toward victory."* *
NFL Expectations"There's no doubt in my mind that he'll be a very good pro," Anderson said. "I don't think he'll be a role player in the NFL – I think he'll be a starter and play at a very high level."
Coach's AdviceAnderson and Borland spoke after the draft and have exchanged text messages in the time since. "He understands the greatness of the team he's on," Anderson said. "He has to go in, have confidence and be open-minded to change. Things are taught differently. I'm sure the pace is quicker than it ever has been and (he'll?) be heavily involved in special teams – because last time I looked the 49ers had a couple pretty good inside linebackers."
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