Beyond a few contributors from last season, Wisconsin Badgers fans will likely see some new faces on the defensive line for 2018.
Gone are longtime defensive ends Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, and Conor Sheehy, who collectively played in 156 games with 90 starts.
That means Olive Sagapolu, the lone senior on the line this season, will be called upon to lead the continuation of the tradition of Wisconsin’s oft-underrated defensive line.
For positive results to come from this group of largely unheralded contributors, the finer nuances of playing closest to the line of scrimmage can make the difference in a game.
“This position, it’s the little details,” Sagapolu said late last month. “One misstep and I can get you out of the play, one misstep can get you to make the play. So it’s all about the little details. That’s probably one thing I’ve most talked with almost every reporter that asks me, ‘What do you think that makes you guys so successful?’
“It’s just the little details.”
According to defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, Sagapolu has already taken the reins “from the first day of winter conditioning” as the leader of the group, along with the likes of probable starters Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand.
“He’s been doing it with the other guys here,” Breckterfield said. “He was always helping the young guys out, getting their technique right. He’s already helping out [freshman Bryson Williams] in terms of all of our everyday drills and different skills we’re doing, he’s helping out. He sees something, he’s kind of a second coach right now. He’s already been here three years and he knows what’s expected. He’s been given the reins, has taken over as the guy, the leader.
“Him, Garrett and Isaiah, only being a sophomore, but still, he’s already at the point where he’s going to be a starter and so I want him to take ownership and already jump into a leadership role that way.”
Breckterfield and Sagapolu both noted the Pago Pago, American Samoa native’s extra work put in on the weekends with the other linemen and even a couple of linebackers.
“For me personally, a lot of guys know that I like to come in on the weekends just trying to do extra work, kind of keep my body in tune and know what I’m doing,” Sagapolu said. “They’ve known that, so then they’ll hit me up and kind of ask me, ‘Can we come in with you?’
“So a lot of the group, the d-line, even [outside linebacker Arrington Farrar] and [inside linebacker] Chris Orr, they’ll come in, too, and we’ll just work off of each other and kind of just play the game and just try to get that 1 percent better—kind of like what [head strength & conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej] talks about is always just trying to take advantage of the day and get that 1 percent better so you can achieve the most out of the day.”
Loudermilk and Rand both played last season in rotation with Sagapolu and the three departed ends. Rand now bumps out to defensive end after working as the No. 2 nose tackle. The other contenders to become contributors at end could include redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal, redshirt juniors Kraig Howe and David Pfaff, along with redshirt sophomore Keldric Preston.
Also throw into the mix redshirt freshmen walk-ons Matt Henningsen and Michael Balistreri as names not commonly known to the the Wisconsin faithful, with the former appearing to receive some reps alongside Sagapolu and Loudermilk late in the last practice before spring break.
There’s also true freshman Bryson Williams, who before being listed as out of practice the Tuesday and Thursday sessions (left leg) open to the media before spring break, appeared to be working with the reserves at nose tackle.
“This group, we definitely have a young group coming back,” Sagapolu said. “It’s just kind of teaching them, taking a day at a time, a rep at a time, kind of learning and watching the film and kind of just increasing their knowledge of what blocks [to expect] so they know what’s to come at them. How they should play it—-whether it’s a down block, whether it’s a base block—it’s always the little details, I feel, for defensive linemen is what makes us such a successful group.
When asked what type of extra work is performed on the weekends, whether drills, sled or lifts, Sagapolu noted it is a combination as he works to improve upon a junior season where he played in all 14 games (10 starts) and recorded 17 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and three sacks.
“I think for me, I feel like I’m decent against the run, but there’s always more room—there’s a lot more room—where I can improve, so that’s why I come in every weekend and kind of play the game in my head,” Sagapolu said. “Know when the blocks will come, kind of just being physical, playing nasty, playing physical hands, shedding blocks—it’s always important for the d-line and that’s how you kind of get to become that all-down player. For me, that’s personally what I’ve been trying to work at this spring is kind of cut the weight and get my body ready.
“Now that we have spring break, it’s a good opportunity for me to relax, kind of re-evaluate how I’ve taken advantage of this spring and look forward to the future and what else holds for this group.”
For that matter, Sagapolu is influencing the next generation of Wisconsin linemen. He and Williams worked on one of Wisconsin’s sleds, the fourth-year player mentoring the early enrollee.
Calling Williams “strong as an ox” and a “good asset to this team,” Sagapolu now looks to help Williams learn the game and transfer the knowledge acquired from playing the last three seasons, as he learned from previous Badgers like Sheehy and Arthur Goldberg.
“I kind of see myself in him in terms of wanting to come in and learn and wanting to learn the playbook and kind of how to play certain downs and stuff like that,” Sagapolu said. “Now it’s more just teaching him when he gets back, get that recovery in, and kind of hope he comes back fast so he can showcase what he can do. I mean, spring is a short, limited time, but you try to take advantage of every rep you have.
“It’s kind of cool to see guys like Gunnar Roberge kind of step in and kind of play that position stout. He’s doing very well for himself, and so it’s good to kind of just get more guys on board to play this position. I mean, the nose is a physical, nasty, dirty position. Every guy that steps into that spot, is going to learn something.”
[Update Apr. 19: There was a missing section of a quote added to Breckerfield’s discussion of Sagapolu, Rand and Loudermilk becoming leaders of the defensive line. We added that back in there, and apologies for the discrepancy.]