On March 8, less than a week before spring practice began for the Wisconsin Badgers, true freshman nose tackle Bryson Williams tweeted a video from his first winter conditioning in Madison demonstrating his impressive strength.
The 29-second clip showed the 6’2, 306-pound Lincoln, Neb., native, with teammates yelling and music blaring in the background, squatting an impressive 550 pounds three times. Then his fellow Badgers swarmed him with congratulations.
“I knew we were going for that three-rep max that day,” Williams said on Thursday. “My goal was originally 520 because before that it had been 500, but I was really feeling it and all the guys were of course hyped.
“Everybody was jumping around, it was pretty crazy, so I put 550 on, and I did it pretty easy. It was a good day. Good team effort that day.”
There is a reason why senior Olive Sagapolu referred to Williams earlier this spring as “strong as an ox.”
According to Sagapolu and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, Williams appears physically ready to take on the task of being a collegiate nose tackle. That is a good sign for a young defensive line replacing three significant contributors at end and bumping out junior Garrett Rand to that position after he was Sagapolu’s back-up the past two seasons.
If Williams can get up to speed by the Aug. 31 season opener against Western Kentucky, it would give Breckterfield and the Wisconsin defense much more versatility and depth at a relatively unproven group.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big adjustment for him,” Breckterfield said on March 15. “He’s already an explosive kid. It’s really just honing in on the fundamentals and technique that’s expected of him. It ain’t about physically being ready about it, he’s ready physically. His mindset is where it needs to be—he’s a competitor—so for me, it’s just getting caught up with what’s expected of the nose and learning the technique and the fundamentals and working through that.”
Learning the details of being a nose tackle is Williams’s expectation this spring, though it will take time to pick up the nuances.
“It’s going to take all of spring, all of summer, and hopefully by fall, he’ll at least have a clue and can take the next jump from there,” Breckterfield said, “but my expectation for him is to work every day, work hard and try to pick up what’s expected of him as quick as he can.”
As Breckterfield mentioned, Williams continually shows the right mindset after enrolling early in January and taking on the challenge of making an impact in his first season in cardinal and white.
“Physically, I can push my own weight, but mentally, it’s the playbook. I got to study more film,” Williams said. “I got to get my right hand placement, foot placement. I got to get a lot better at that. I need to make a huge improvement on that before the spring game, hopefully, and definitely before the season.”
Fortunately, Williams can learn from a great mentor in Sagapolu. During and at times after practice, the elder lineman—who credited the likes of Conor Sheehy and Arthur Goldberg for taking him under their wing—has worked with the true freshman.
“He’s a physical guy, quick guy,” Sagapolu said on March 22. “He’s definitely a good asset to this team. Now, it’s just teaching all the stuff that I know in my head and kind of just teaching him. If you see him in some of the drills that we’re doing, he’ll stand behind me and kind of just react to what I’m seeing, doing what I’m doing, just so he can learn.”
Who better for Williams to learn from than Sagapolu, who Breckterfield noted has been acting as a second coach of sorts. The senior has been entrenched on the line for the past three seasons and he knows playing nose tackle is “a physical, nasty, dirty position.”
Sagapolu admitted he sees himself in Williams, especially as the younger player wants to come in and learn the playbook and how to play certain downs.
Williams would say he is attached to Sagapolu’s hip, praising the 338-pounder who has played in 36 games with 19 starts.
“Anybody can watch practice and see that I’m always right by him and seeing what he is doing, and I think that’s important for me,” Williams said. “He is a great player. He is a great defensive lineman. I haven’t seen anything like him in person as far as his technique and exactly he knows where every block is going, so if I could get to that level, I’d be straight like that.
“He’s a great player. That’s why I’m always watching his feet, his hand placement, and what he is thinking on certain blocks because I think he’s that great of a player and I think I can learn a tremendous amount from him. I really do.”
With every rep Sagapolu performs, Williams says he tries to get two on the mental side of the game.
“I’m watching his hands and his feet,” Williams said. “I’m giving myself two mental reps and the one physical rep so I’m always there. I’m always seeing what he’s doing. My eyes don’t wander in practice. I’m always keying in on exactly what he’s doing.”
Williams missed two practices open to the media the week before spring break, but he believes he is getting better every day with every rep taken. Still, there is more to digest going forward.
“I have a great o-line to go against every rep, so you have to give it your 100 percent every play or you’ll get driven to the ground, so I feel myself progressing, but I can’t stop ever,” Williams said. “I got to learn more things.
“We put in new things almost every day, so I got to make sure I keep up with that while also learning everything else that everybody already knows so I just got to learn it and pick up and go with it.”
To continue reducing the learning curve, Williams watches film in between his studies—his goal is entering UW’s business school—along with logging those reps during and after practice.
“Being a mid-year freshman isn’t going to be an excuse when we get to the field. I wouldn’t want it to be,” Williams said. “I’m on the level with these guys, I think I deserved it, so I got to earn the spot I can get. That’s why I’m staying after [practice] because I’m at a disadvantage, but nobody cares.
“Nobody cares. That’s the big thing this year, ‘’Nobody cares, work harder,’ so that’s what I’m doing. Nobody cares that I’m a mid-year. I just got to work harder than everybody else.”