Youthful contributors stepping up has become a recurring theme this season for the Wisconsin defense. Ten players, designated as either true or redshirt freshmen, have already started games for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit.
With senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu out the rest of the season after suffering a right arm injury against Northwestern, true freshman Bryson Williams became one of those 10 to start and now finds himself in an even bigger role. That adds more pressure to a player who just a year ago was a standout lineman at Lincoln Southeast in Nebraska, but he believes that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s not pressure as in bad where you’re just super tense and anxious but a good pressure that you know—it’s not a secret—you know you need to step up,” Williams told B5Q on Wednesday. “Everybody knows you need to step up because you don’t want to have somebody picking up for your slack. You don’t want to slack. You don’t want there to be dropoff, so I’m just making sure I do my job, and when I do my job, I do it well playing good ball. That’s all I’m really focused on.”
Seeing time on the field for all 10 games this season, Williams has technically started one game—Wisconsin’s 31-17 win against Rutgers on Nov. 3. However with Sagapolu’s injury, the 6’2, 301-pound true freshman has seen the expected uptick in on-the-field snaps.
“Obviously, his role is probably more expanded at this point than we anticipated going into the season, but I think he’s handled it well,” Leonhard said on Wednesday when asked about Williams’s development. “Physically, he’s a mature kid, and he’s able to handle the load that we’re asking him to do, and we’re excited to see how he closes this season out.”
After enrolling early and participating in spring practices, Williams worked his way up to No. 2 nose tackle at the beginning of the season and found playing time in rotation on the defensive line.
With the additional playing time, Williams acknowledged he approaches the week-to-week process the same, but there are some changes.
“I’m just getting a lot more reps and with that comes a lot more of the recovery instead of the build up,” Williams said. “Because the build up, I practice like I’m going to start usually anyways. It’s just now that instead of 12 to 18 plays, I’m getting 40 to whatever. So it’s really, I think that’s kind of the major change is now my body is feeling it a little bit more so I got to take some times for myself to rest and recover, take the whole weekend to do that, so I would say that is the biggest change.”
Showing maturity as a first-year player, Williams already works to maximize his time so that he can receive treatment for recovery or engage in completing homework assignments. That includes anchoring down in one or two locations so minutes and hours are not wasted traveling everywhere on campus between his courses.
“If I’m not at class, I could be at Ogg like laying down or something,” said Williams, who has registered seven tackles on the year. “I’m here, because here, I can get some homework done, go to some treatment then go to meetings rather than having to walk over here, which is 15 to 20 minutes that I could be doing homework or getting treatment, plus the walk back and all that stuff. So it’s just using your time well, being efficient with your time. Ten minutes that you get every couple of hours adds up and you can use that for good instead of just wasting it.”
On the field, Williams continues to hone in and work on the basic techniques of what is expected of a Wisconsin nose tackle and defensive lineman, something he explains as “your basic foundation.”
Against Penn State in a 22-10 loss last Saturday, Williams recorded two tackles on the afternoon. He recalled he “made a play or two” using the technique he was coached, but on the flip side, he also remembers a snap where he did not accomplish his assignment and Penn State gained addition yardage. He knows that can affect situations during a game.
“Now a couple yards isn’t the worst thing in the world, but that is yards that they shouldn’t have gained that puts them in a worse spot to maybe have to punt it on whatever or maybe not be able to go for it,” Williams said. “Just things like that, and with my eyes that play, just got to have better eyes, better feet, better hands so just being consistent I think is the biggest thing when you get to be a starter.”
Receiving meaningful snaps can make a difference for a young player. Redshirt senior inside linebacker Ryan Connelly believes Williams is improving and that the added exposure will help the young lineman.
“I think for Bryson, is that each game you play, you get a little more confidence. You get a little more experience,” Connelly said. “I think that’s just what he needs is more reps and more game reps. Each week he’s improving, so I think he’s just only [going to] continue to get better.”
Leonhard explained that he is seeing actions from Williams that are indications of growing confidence throughout the course of the year.
“You get young guys out there a lot of times, they just play. They’re not necessarily thinking. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, right? You don’t want them to overthink, but I think throughout the course of the year, you’re just getting a better understanding of what he’s going to see week-to-week, and I think he’s doing more things on purpose, ya know?
“I think he means to, ‘I mean to strike with my hands here, I mean to take this first step and get into this position,’ rather than sometimes just kind of trying to play and just get through plays. So I think that comes with confidence, that comes with experience, and we’re excited for him.”