Lucas at Large: Brinkley, Kendricks put 'pain' in the past

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You can understand why tight end Lance Kendricks and cornerback Niles Brinkley might have some painful recollections from Wisconsin's last trip to Michigan State. Literally painful for Kendricks, who broke his leg. Figuratively painful for Brinkley who got "attacked.'' By his own admission.

Going into the 2008 game at Spartan Stadium, there was a reasonably high expectation level for Kendricks, who was in line for more playing time after the "go-to'' receiver Travis Beckum  broke his leg the previous Saturday against Illinois and was lost for the season.

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Kendricks, a converted wide receiver from Milwaukee Rufus King, was still somewhat of an unknown as a tight end though he had three catches for 94 yards in a non-conference win over Marshall, which provided a small glimpse of his upside at the position.

While Garrett Graham took over as the "featured'' tight end in the rotation, Kendricks was just hoping to earn the trust of the coaching staff against the Spartans. And he got off to a "fast'' start by catching a 10-yard pass from Dustin Sherer on the UW's first offensive possession.

"That's the one thing I do remember -- I was playing fast -- the fastest I had played up until that point,'' Kendricks said. "After Travis got hurt, coach (Paul) Chryst told me, 'It's up to you now.' And I took it as an opportunity to show them what I could do, and why I should be on the field.''

Kendricks, though, had to be helped from the field after breaking his fibula on the UW's second offensive series. (Unwittingly, he completed the hat trick for the Badgers by becoming the third player to sustain that injury since the spring; joining Beckum and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy.)

Because the break was not as severe as the others, Kendricks was able to return for Wisconsin's bowl game against Florida State. That represented part of the "silver lining'' for Kendricks, who not only got back on the field before the end of the season but got "better'' during his rehab from the injury.

Better how? "I was able to learn the game better,'' Kendricks said, "because the one thing I was able to do when I was hurt was watch a lot more film. And that was to my advantage once I returned.''

The tight end, namely Graham, has played a big role in each of the last two games between Wisconsin and Michigan State. In 2008, Graham led the Badgers in receiving with six catches for 68 yards, including a touchdown. Last season, he was even more of a presence with three TD catches.

This season, Kendricks has already exhibited his value to the UW offense as a tenacious blocker and a sure-handed pass-catching threat, especially in the absence of injured wide receivers Nick Toon, who has missed three games, and David Gilreath, who has missed two.

The soft-spoken Kendricks is often measured in his responses. But he has an affinity for self-expression. In high school, he used a canvas and his artwork received national recognition.

Like most college athletes, Kendricks has dabbled in "ink'' with tattoos on his biceps. One centers around his initials and the 3L's. "All three of my brothers' names start with L,'' he said.

The other tat is in memory of his grandmother, his Granny Flora, who passed away shortly before the Badgers played in East Lansing the last time. "I was very close to her,'' he said.

Lately, Kendrick has not had any trouble expressing himself between the lines. For the second-consecutive week, he has been singled out as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week.

Nevada's Virgil Green and Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph were the first two tight ends recognized by the Nassau County Sports Commission before Kendricks got on his latest two-game roll.

Kendricks had seven receptions for a career-high 123 yards and one touchdown against Arizona State. That topped his seven-catch, 128-performance against Miami (Fla.) in the Champs Sports Bowl. Kendricks followed that up with six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against Austin Peay.

Earlier this week, Kendricks was asked if he would be carrying any emotional baggage or psychological scars with him back to East Lansing given his injury from two years ago. "Not at all,'' he emphasized. "I was out there playing fast, and I just got hurt.''

Injuries are part of the game. So are the growing pains. Just ask Brinkley, whose inexperience as a sophomore was exposed during that 25-24 loss to the Spartans in '08. Brinkley opened the season in a tag-team rotation at left cornerback with Mario Goins, a redshirt freshman.

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Brinkley, a converted wide receiver (not unlike Kendricks), was forced to take on more responsibilities as a starter after Goins suffered a concussion and was sidelined. With proven All-Big Ten cornerback Allen Langford on one side of the field, it was no secret what Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer wanted to do once he saw how vulnerable Brinkley was in man-coverage.

Out of deference to the Spartans' explosive tailback, Javon Ringer, the Badgers tried to limit his impact on the outcome of the game which they did (and which put more pressure on Langford and Brinkley).  Ringer, who had been dealing with a virus, managed just 54 rushing yards on 21 carries.

"Their quarterback (Hoyer) was trying to attack me because I was a young corner,'' Brinkley said. "They ran a bunch of posts my way, a bunch of different routes. I got a penalty on one drive, and they came right back after me. I hadn't been attacked that much previously that season.

"I guess they decided, 'Since he's young, we're going after him.' That happens a lot in football. It happens in the NFL with rookie DBs. That day was a real growing up experience for me.''

(Note: Former UW cornerback Scott Starks experienced a similar fate against Michigan State in 2001 at the hands of Charles Rogers, who had 206 receiving yards; most of them at Stark's expense.)

Brinkley was flagged a couple of times for pass interference, and once for holding. He was also victimized on a trick play, an end-around pass thrown by Keshawn Martin that was good for 35 yards. But at the end of a very long day, Brinkley showed his competitiveness and resiliency.

On MSU's second-to-last possession, he broke up a deep post pattern between Hoyer and Chris D. Rucker which forced the Spartans to settle for a 50-yard field goal by Brett Swenson, who would later kick the game-winner from 47.

When Brinkley, a fifth-year senior from St. Louis, lines up Saturday, he will see some familiar faces in B.J. Cunningham (6-2, 200) and Mark Dell (6-2, 199), who have combined for 195 career receptions for 2,879 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 5-foot-11 Martin is still around, too.

"From doing our film research, they look more like a run team this year, about 60:40,'' Brinkley said. "They'll try to run first and then try to get a deep ball. They have great balance as an offense.

"Their running backs (Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell)  bounce off a lot of tackle attempts. The key for us is to wrap up, get a lot of hats around the ball and gang tackle.''

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