Lucas at Large: New-look Fenton stepping into spotlight

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By now, UW linebacker A.J. Fenton has grown accustomed to the double-takes whenever he runs into somebody who hasn't seen him since the end of the first semester.

After the Rose Bowl, he went home to Erie, Pa., and "looked at myself in the mirror.''

It's not what you think.

This was not one of these moments of intense self-reflection and analysis resulting from the Badgers losing to Oregon in Pasadena or an unproductive season personally because of injuries.

Fenton just happened to walk past a mirror one day when he stopped to look at himself.

That spawned this thought, 'Let's do it, let's get rid of it, I had it long enough.''

That was his spontaneous reaction to his shoulder-length hair and beard.

Even though he had been growing it out for three-plus years, he figured, "Why not?''

It was a tough decision, but it was also time for a new look.

"I love it, I think it's awesome,'' Fenton said.

That goes for the haircut and the reaction that he gets all the time to the haircut.

Truth is, Fenton is more focused than ever to get people reacting to his play on the field.

"I've got two years left,'' said Fenton, who will be a redshirt junior in the fall. "I just want to be out there helping the team win. It's a huge spring for me as far as moving forward.''

Fenton has not only lost a good chunk of his hair -- UW head coach Bret Bielema estimated about three pounds worth -- but he has lost some body fat. He was listed at 235 last season.

"During the off-season and winter, I dropped some weight, I'm about 220 now,'' he said. "I wanted to get lighter on my feet and I feel better and more comfortable in my frame.

"I'm running a lot better. It's all kind of clicking; it's kind of coming together.''

Bielema has noticed. Following several practices, he has mentioned Fenton by name. Beyond noting his running ability, he has talked about Fenton's progress and decision to stay at linebacker.

There has been a temptation, Bielema conceded, to move Fenton to fullback; especially since he rushed for over 4,000 career yards and 54 touchdowns as a prep running back and option quarterback.

Shortly after Fenton verbally committed to the Badgers in mid-September of 2008, he rushed for 216 yards and three touchdowns and passed for two scores in McDowell's 49-13 win over Norwin.

Even though he played mostly on offense, he was projected as a college linebacker. Fenton was one of three tendered 'backers in the 2009 recruiting class, joining Chris Borland and Connor O'Neill.

After redshirting as a true freshman, Fenton got some snaps as a rush end in a specialty defensive package after Borland was injured during the 2010 season. Mostly he was on special teams.

FB_120423_Fenton_AJ_2.jpgGoing into the 2011 training camp, Fenton had his sights on competing with Kevin Claxton for a starting assignment at linebacker on the No. 1 defense with Borland and Mike Taylor.

But he wound up missing most of the preseason and the opener with a hamstring injury.

"He (Fenton) had really taken to his coaching pretty well and was on the verge,'' Bielema said. "He's probably our fastest linebacker, so to get him out there would be a huge asset.''

Bielema's reference was to the "coaching'' of former linebackers coach Dave Huxtable, now at Pitt. Huxtable had taken over for Dave Doeren. Andy Buh has now taken for Huxtable.

"Coach (Buh) has helped me a lot actually,'' Fenton said. "He's huge into techniques and huge into fundamentals -- and being where we're supposed to be. He's very meticulous.

"Having three different coaches in four years, you get a fresh start with each one. For a guy like me, it has been nice because I've gotten to make a first impression three different times.''

While he has enjoyed contributing on special teams, he doesn't want to be labeled a role player.

"Special teams are good but you definitely don't want to play only on special teams,'' Fenton said. "Everybody who plays on special teams strives to get on the offense or the defense.''

That is why this spring has loomed so large. "Huge,'' Fenton stressed. "This is probably the first time I've been completely healthy -- 100 percent -- for awhile. This is my chance.''

As it is, Fenton will get a second chance to perform in front of an audience Monday at the fourth annual Buckinghams, an event which shines the spotlight on academic excellence and achievement.

As part of the program, student-athletes are also recognized for their entertainment skills. A year ago, Fenton teamed up with Kendall Grimm, a member of the UW softball team.

He played the guitar, and she sang. They're back for more. Fenton and Grimm have collaborated on their version of Katy Perry's song, "Firework.''

"As you grow older, you start to listen to different kinds of music,'' Fenton said. "I've evolved as far as what I've been playing and what I've been listening to.

"I'm not getting into more the rock and roll aspect, more Foo Fighters, things like that. I have an electric guitar but I don't get to play it as much just because of the time aspect (with football).''

On the Buckinghams, he said, "This is a great opportunity to get recognized (academically) while letting people perform and show some talents that they don't usually get to show.''

That performance value will be magnified Saturday when he steps on the Camp Randall stage.

ON WISCONSIN