Aug. 17, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- After Wednesday’s practice, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen was positively beaming when asked about the heated competition between Rover linebackers Conor O’Neill and Derek Landisch.
Too close to call, he admitted.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda had the same reaction Thursday to the spirited position battle between O’Neill, a fifth-year senior from Delray Beach, Fla., and Landisch, a junior from Nashotah.
“That might be the tightest one (battle) of all of them to be honest with you,’’ said Aranda, who coaches the UW linebackers. “It goes back and forth (daily), and you love to see that.’’
Andersen and Aranda felt like Landisch was more productive than O’Neill in Monday’s scrimmage. In turn, they felt like O’Neill was the more dominant player in Wednesday’s practice.
Obviously, they’ve both benefited from a healthy competition.
“It makes both of us bring our ‘A’ game each and every single day,’’ said O’Neill. “Whenever I see him make a play, I always think, ‘I have to make a play now.’’’
“Competition brings out the best in everybody,’’ Landisch said. “When we come out here we know that we have to perform at our best because we know that’s what the other guy is doing as well.’’
This is the not the first time that O’Neill and Landisch have been friendly competitors.
“Derek and I have a good relationship,’’ said O’Neill. “Since he came in as a freshman, we’ve always competed against each other on special teams and the defense.
“I feel like our relationship has grown over the past few years, especially over the last eight months because we’ve been able to bounce ideas off each other when it comes to the (3-4) defense.’’
Both are from elite high school programs. O’Neill is from St. Thomas Aquinas, with its seven Florida state titles and two national crowns; Landisch is from Hartland Arrowhead, which owns five Wisconsin state titles and five runner-up finishes.
Even though O’Neill is a Floridian, he said, “I consider myself a Midwestern kid now.’’
He also considers himself at home in Aranda’s defense.
“In high school, we ran a 5-2,’’ O’Neill said. “Our outside backers were just basically stand-up D-ends and I was one of the middle linebackers and basically I did what I’m doing now -- run to the ball.’’
Landisch played inside and outside linebacker as a prep. “I think this defense fits me perfectly,’’ he said. “I like to be aggressive, I like to blitz, and I like to run downhill and attack ballcarriers.’’
The operative word for Aranda’s 3-4 scheme would be aggressive.
“I love it,’’ said O’Neill. “We’re coming from different angles and looks and we’re a lot more aggressive. I feel it plays to our personnel a lot better. We have athletes, guys who can rush and drop.’’
“I love it,’’ said Landisch. “I love aggressive defense but it’s calculated, it’s not reckless. Coach Aranda knows what he’s doing. He calls the shots (the blitzes) when he thinks it’s the right time.’’
The fact that Aranda is coordinating the entire defense and tutoring the linebackers is a bonus.
|“That’s what separates the top players from those players who just show up in practice,’’ O'Neill said of Monday's scrimmage. “It’s a big deal for me and Derek.’’
“In meetings,’’ O’Neill said, “he won’t only explain what we’re doing, but what the D-line is doing, what the D-backs are doing and how they’re fitting off of us and us off of them. It’s very helpful.’’
Added Landisch, “Instead of talking with your position coach and then talking with your defensive coordinator, it’s the same guy, so it’s a direct line of communication.’’
O’Neill remembered having a similar working relationship with former UW assistant coach Dave Doeren who, like Aranda, held both titles. Doeren is now the head coach at NC State.
“Being one of the inside ‘backers,’’ said O’Neill, “I feel like now we’re a lot more involved every single play; we’re more involved with run fits rather than covering the bubble like we did in the past.’’
Whether it’s O’Neill or Landisch, it doesn’t hurt to be partnered up with Chris Borland, the senior All-America candidate. He needs just 144 tackles to become the UW’s all-time leader.
“Chris and I came in the same year,’’ O’Neill said, “and he has been someone I’ve looked up to as a player. He makes everyone that he plays with better, everybody around him.
“Offenses tend to scheme around Chris, which opens up a lot of other guys. Just to be able to communicate with him and know what he’s thinking on and the field helps everybody out.’’
Landisch has been trying to go to school on Borland’s leadership skills.
“I’m not the most vocal and he has been encouraging me to talk,’’ Landisch said. “The inside linebackers have to be leaders; we have to be physical and we have to get other people lined up.
“We have to be the pulse of the defense. If people are down, we have to bring them up. Chris has definitely helped in that aspect with his experience.’’
Borland has liked what he has seen out of O’Neill and Landisch. “They’re both smart so they can adjust pretty well to the new defense,’’ he said, “and they both have speed so they can fly around.’’
Borland noted that O’Neill and Landisch are hard workers and motivated to get the most out of every practice. As such, they’re both looking forward to Monday’s second public scrimmage.
“That’s what separates the top players from those players who just show up in practice,’’ O’Neill said. “You have to go into a scrimmage with a game mentality. It’s a big deal for me and Derek.’’
“It’s real football, you get to tackle,’’ said Landisch. “A scrimmage is a game-like scenario. You see if you can get lined up -- know the call, know what you’re doing -- and you see if you can execute.’’
When you pull back the curtains and peek into the mind of a linebacker, what do you see?
If O’Neill had a poster on his wall of any linebacker of his choice, he said it would be of Patrick Willis, the All-Pro with the San Francisco 49ers. “He’s a great all-around player,’’ O’Neill said.
Landisch said his poster would be of Clay Matthews, the All-Pro with the Green Bay Packers. “I just like how aggressive he is,’’ he said.
That word again, aggressive. Aranda has programmed them well.