Badgers to rotate through many defensive line options during camp
Olive Sagapolu became a steady force on the field over the past three seasons and a lovable character off it.
The senior nose tackle, listed at 6-foot-2 and 342 pounds, may have proved his athleticism more through dance moves and backflips than his role plugging up the middle of the University of Wisconsin defense.
Maybe it should be no surprise then, with the Badgers in dire need of reinforcements at defensive end, that Sagapolu will start fall camp Thursday by taking plenty of reps outside his natural position.
“Yeah, he’s 334 or 335 or whatever it is, but he moves like he’s 300,” UW defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said Wednesday during the Badgers’ local media day at Camp Randall Stadium. “He’s a sneaky athletic kid. But the biggest thing is he’s smart, and he can balance both worlds.”
This exploration of Sagapolu’s versatility comes after UW’s projected starters at defensive end - junior Garrett Rand and sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk - suffered injuries this summer.
Rand’s season ended with an Achilles injury, while Loudermilk may miss the first few games of the season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. The Badgers also lost their top three defensive ends from last season in then-seniors Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih.
Loudermilk said Wednesday that his knee bothered him last season due to an accumulation of multiple issues but thought he was healthy entering spring practice. During the last week of spring, however, he tweaked it and ultimately needed the surgery.
He said he’ll start running again in the next couple days and expects to “definitely” return by at least the start of Big Ten Conference play on Sept. 22 at Iowa.
“I’ll be limited in camp, but once camp ends I should be able to start working back in and take it day by day, see which game I’ll be able to come back,” Loudermilk said. “First, second, third, I’m not sure yet. ... I’m hoping for the first couple games to be back, but we’ll see where I’m at when the time comes.”
Until then, UW will spend camp deciphering its best options at defensive end and ways in which its best linemen can see the field simultaneously.
After the Badgers moved offensive lineman Kayden Lyles to nose tackle this summer, it gave them three players at that position - Sagapolu, Lyles and true freshman Bryson Williams - that the coaching staff felt were capable of playing a meaningful role this season. Breckterfield said Lyles and Williams are also cross-training at defensive end and could also see reps there during camp.
“Obviously, Olive’s going to be the first guy to get a shot at it, and I can always put him back in there (at nose tackle),” Breckterfield said. “Cross-trained them all, and I’ll continue doing that. Sometimes it’ll be by committee. Sometimes it might be Kayden out there, it might be Olive out there, it might be Bryson. Your job is to play the best guys, and if they can do both, then you do both.”
The Badgers do have defensive ends behind Rand and Loudermilk that could step into major roles, but like Lyles and Williams, none of them are game-proven.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal impressed throughout the offseason and could push for a starting job, and Breckterfield mentioned junior David Pfaff and redshirt freshman Matt Henningsen as having encouraging springs. Junior Kraig Howe, sophomore Keldric Preston, true freshman Isaiah Mullens and others may also push for playing time.
The Badgers have just four weeks to sort through the candidates, and both Breckterfield and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said they expect a larger amount of players at the position to contribute than in previous years.
“It might be a little bit more by committee than it has been in the past,” Leonhard said. “Guys having specific things that they kind of excel at, and having to rotate through personnel a little bit more than we did in the two years that I’ve been here.
“I expect to see a lot of competition. I think at a number of positions on defense, especially at defensive line, guys understand that there are large roles that need to be filled. Hopefully that’s a very hungry group that wants to come out and compete every day and try to earn those.”