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A year ago, Bill Butters wasn't quite sure what he was getting himself into.
"Being an ex-Minnesota player and an ex-Gophers coach,'' said Butters (right), "there was a little friction and I felt a little stress.''
A year ago, Gary Shuchuk wasn't quite sure what he was getting himself into, either.
"I never thought I'd be friends with a Gopher,'' kidded Shuchuk, the ex-Badger. "But we're good friends. I don't look at Bill as a colleague or a coach. I look at him as a close friend that I can talk to.''
A year ago, UW men's hockey Mike Eaves hired Butters and Shuchuk as assistant coaches.
That necessitated some adjustments for everyone throughout the transition period.
"Not knowing how Mike coaches,'' Butters said, "it was all new.''
"Last year,'' Shuchuk said, "there was a learning curve for me coaching at this level.''
A year later, Eaves feels much more comfortable with Butters and Shuchuk. And vice versa.
"They know our systems,'' said Eaves, adding that he has been "able to delegate more comfortably'' with Butters and Shuchuk and knowing that "takes a load off my mind.''
As a result, Eaves said, "I can be detailed about other things in terms of individual stuff with players, so we're definitely well ahead of the curve.''
As a player, Butters skated for Glen Sonmor and Herb Brooks at Minnesota. He was a no-nonsense defenseman. As a coach, Butters was an assistant with the Gophers for 10 seasons.
Hence, he went through an understandable orientation to Badger hockey.
What's the biggest difference from last season to this season?
"I'm a little bit more relaxed,'' Butters said. "I think I know a little more, I'm a little wiser and I'm a little bit more comfortable. I also have a few players that I actually recruited (on the roster).''
That would be Patrick Daly, a defenseman from Victoria, Minn.; Joseph LaBate, a freshman forward from Eagan, Minn.; and Brad Navin, a freshman forward from Waupaca, Wis.
Eaves put Butters in charge of the blue line corps. "And I'm more comfortable with them,'' Butters said of his returning players, "and they're more comfortable with me.''
Butters' transition extended beyond the ice. He also had to adjust to a new campus and community; and a new coaching environment within the UW athletic department.
"I had a good session with Bret Bielema the other day,'' Butters said of the UW football coach. "We had a recruit in town and he (Bielema) was wonderful.
"He took about 20 minutes to talk with him while the team was practicing. Just to see that side of the Badgers (family) and how everyone is pulling for each other is cool.''
Shuchuk was once an integral playing member of the Badger family. In 1990, he was an All-American and the leading scorer on a UW team that won the national championship.
"This being my second year on the coaching staff, I really feel a part of the program,'' Shuchuk said. "I know when I can speak up without stepping on Mike's or Bill's toes.
"Now I feel more comfortable with what I'm capable of doing. What's even better is I'm still learning from those guys. The three of us enjoy each other's company.
"We just love coming to work every day. We don't see it as a job. And we want to convey that to the boys in the locker room that 'You play this game to have fun.'''
Of course, it's more fun when you're winning hockey games on a consistent basis. That will be a challenge this season with so many freshmen and sophomores on the roster and so much inexperience on the ice.
"We're a young team and we realize that as a staff,'' Butters said. "We're not putting any pressure on the players. But we're not saying 'We're young' so we can lose 20 games and that's OK.
"We want to win here and we want our young guys to grow up real quick, if they can. But we know there might be some growing pains with them early on and we're going to be patient with them.''
Butters has more answers than questions with his returning defensemen. That includes an All-American and top-10 Hobey Baker Award finalist in Justin Schultz, who led the Badgers in scoring last season.
Complementing Schultz will be team captain John Ramage. "Our blue line should be a strength for us,'' said Butters. "That should give our forwards a chance to grow a little bit.''
Butters is counting on getting contributions from Frankie Simonelli, Joe Faust and Eric Springer, the lone senior. "They'll all get some playing time,'' he pointed out.
A freshman, Jake McCabe, will also factor into the mix. "He's kind of like Jake Gardiner (who signed with Toronto),'' Butters said. "He's got a good stick; he's a good skater and a strong kid.''
That has always been a teaching point for Butters -- how a defenseman handles his stick.
"I think the guys are more used to how I want them to play,'' he said. "I'd like our guys to be more like me (as a player). But I'd have liked to have been more like them. They have a lot more talent.
"We just need to be a little more physical. I'm not asking Justin Schultz to crush guys. But John Ramage and some others have that 'crush-ability' and they should step into a few more bodies.''
Shuchuk likes the energy and emotion that Ramage brings to the rink. "He's a steady guy who plays the game with heart,'' he said, "and he's trying to share his passion with a lot of the other guys.''
The competition should be pretty intense for spots on the forward lines, he added.
"If you want to play and be in the starting lineup, you have to show us,'' Shuchuk said. "We're basically having open auditions for a lot of things; power play, penalty-killing. That's the intriguing thing.
"I'd love to be a player coming in here right now. If you weren't hyped as a goal-scorer or a first-line player, this is your chance to prove that 'This is my spot now.'''
That would also apply to the three goaltenders: Mitch Thompson, Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson. "Who wants to take the bull by the horn and be the number one guy?'' Shuchuk asked.
That will be answered in time. "That's going to be an important part,'' Butters said, "to see how we play in our zone and give those guys (the goalies) some confidence.''
Shuchuk nodded and said, "Our defensive corps is a huge catalyst.''
It's definitely a good starting point.
Prior to Thursday's practice, UW coach Bret Bielema and ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit were engaged in an animated conversation that was more of an extension of their friendship than a chalk talk.
During his network radio show that night, Bielema playfully suggested that Herbstreit was a "nerd'' when they first met as 22-year-old seniors at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in Chicago.
Bielema, the Iowa nose tackle, and Herbstreit, the Ohio State quarterback, went out for pizza and discovered that they had many things in common. They've enjoyed each other's company since.
"When his career was beginning to grow,'' Bielema said, "I remember Kirk coming to Iowa City as a sideline reporter for ESPN Radio and from there he kind of blossomed into what you see today.
"I know sometimes he doesn't give the Badgers a lot of love and sometimes people don't like him, but we have an unbelievable relationship. We talk once a week if not more and send texts.''
Herbstreit, who has won back-to-back Sports Emmys for Outstanding Studio Analyst, and Bielema bantered for about 20 minutes before practice got under way in the McClain Facility.
"That's probably the highlight of my job,'' said Herbstreit, 42, who grew up answering to a coach. His dad, Jim, was a halfback for the Buckeyes and later an assistant under Woody Hayes.
His ESPN/ABC job, he said, entails "going all over the country, talking with coaches, getting in the film room with them and having a chance to really find out how these guys tick on a personal level.''
So what makes Bielema tick?
"He has not forgotten what it's like to be a player; he relates very well to players,'' Herbstreit said. "He has also surrounded himself with a great (coaching) staff.
"He's got people that he trusts to coach on both sides of the ball, which has freed him up to be more of an administrator over the top of everything else.
"At the end of the day, if you're a parent and you're going to send your son to play for Bret, you're going to know that he will always have your son's best interests in mind.''Wilson changes Badgers' dynamic
As the stretching exercises were ending, Russell Wilson jogged over and shook Herbstreit's hand. Briefly trading pleasantries, Herbstreit promised to touch base with Wilson after practice.
"When I heard that he was looking to go to Auburn or Wisconsin,'' Herbstreit said, "I personally was hoping that he would go to Wisconsin only because I knew what was returning in Madison.
"That was the one position (quarterback) -- with Scott (Tolzien) leaving -- that was a huge question mark for the Badgers.
"So when he decided to come here, I thought if he picks up the offense, it could be really scary how good they could be.''
Herbstreit recognized that Wilson, a three-year starter at NC State, would bring a certain level of maturity to the position. "But it's still a difference scheme, different terminology,'' he said.
From the beginning, Herbstreit noted, Wilson was committed to devouring the playbook.
"What people don't understand is that it's not just the playbook,'' he said. "It's the adjustments that are associated with each play based on the coverage you see. It's remarkable what he has done.
"His poise and accuracy are two things that stand out for me. I've studied him all week. For any quarterback sitting in the pocket, there's a tendency when things aren't there to take off and create.
"Even though he has that ability to make plays with his feet, he's more than willing to let the play develop and be patient in the pocket. He has such trust in his teammates.
"To me, it's the way he has fit in from an intangible standpoint that's been very special.''Toon makes connection with new QB
Herbstreit's film study confirmed the chemistry between Wilson and wide receiver Nick Toon.
"They're both appreciating one another,'' he said. "When you're a quarterback -- whether you want to admit it or not -- you always have 'your guy.'
"And even though you have to read a defense before you make a decision on where to go with the ball, there's always 'your guy' that you're looking for and, clearly, Toon is that guy for Wilson.''
The Badgers have been dominating opposing defenses, but Herbstreit cautioned against drawing too many conclusions off the non-conference sample, especially given the strength of their opponents.
"Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will challenge Wisconsin more than it has been challenged all year,'' he said. "This is where we'll really find out how good the Badgers are.
"Up to this point, they've done everything they're supposed to do. They've beaten up on a lot of inferior teams.
"But now here's a chance for Wisconsin. If the Badgers can go out and win this game, they can earn a lot more credibility on a national level than maybe what they've received so far.''Huskers back in contention
There's no question Nebraska has once again become a solid football program under Bo Pelini. But there is a question on how the Huskers' athleticism and physicality will translate in the Big Ten.
"In the Big 12, their defense was built for more of a 4-2-5 with five and, sometimes, six defensive backs,'' Herbstreit said, "because everybody is spreading you out and throwing sideline to sideline.
"Now they're going to face more teams that are going to try and run the football at them, right down hill. There's a transition period defensively for what they're going through.
"Bo Pelini played with me at Ohio State. He was a captain, he grew up in Ohio. Much like Bret, he knows the Big Ten. He'll be able to prepare his players for what they're about to face.
"But you have what you have. It's the same thing with Brady Hoke at Michigan. They're in a transition period and Brady is doing the best that he can.
"Eventually you have to go out and find personnel that fits your team and what you do and that might take Nebraska couple of years to do that.''Building perception of the Big Ten
Even with the addition of the Cornhuskers, the Big Ten is still trying to earn respect, Herbstreit said. As such, Saturday's winner will not automatically join the Big Boy Football fraternity.
SEC teams have won five straight national championships.
"The perception nationally of the Big Ten is that it's a step or two down,'' he said, "so even if you win this game, you're on the outside looking in. That's the reality of playing in the Big Ten.''
That won't change, Herbstreit added, "Until we as a conference change that perception by winning some heavyweight nonconference games and (BCS) bowl games.
"With that being said, Wisconsin takes a much higher step (nationally) if it beats Nebraska than Nebraska would if it beats Wisconsin. The opportunity is there for Wisconsin.
"People respect where Wisconsin's program is with Bret as the guy in charge. But playing in the Big Ten, the reality is that you need help in order to get up there with LSU, Oklahoma and Alabama.''
Thousands of celebrating Badger fans did something after Wisconsin's victory over No. 1 ranked Ohio State last season that tailback Montee Ball didn't do during the game.
They got on the field.
Ball didn't play a snap against the Buckeyes, which made his late-season run -- make that his late-season running -- all the more noteworthy, especially given the numbers that Ball has put up since.
Since Oct. 23, 2010, Ball has accounted for 25 touchdowns, including at least one score in each of his last 10 games. Oregon's LaMichael James has 21 touchdowns over the same time span.
What is significant about Oct. 23?
One week after the Ohio State game, Ball came off the bench at Iowa -- replacing the injured James White in the rotation -- and scored the game-winning touchdown on a clutch 8-yard run.
That restored whatever confidence that he had lost. Ball finished with a flourish by rushing for over 100 yards in each of the final five games of the 2010 season.
After Tuesday's practice, Ball reflected on the sequence of events last October.
"The week leading up to it,'' he said of playing Ohio State, "was really exciting because we were playing the No. 1 team in the country. You can't ask for a bigger stage.
"But afterward I was a little depressed and a little sad about it (not playing).''
That prompted an office visit with his position coach, John Settle, who's now with the Carolina Panthers. Ball let him know, "I'm still committed to the team 100 percent.''
What else could he do?
"Basically I had no other options,'' Ball said. "It was either get better or go home.''
Ball informed Settle, "I'm ready whenever my number is called to go in and produce.''
Although he wasn't expecting to play at Iowa, he kept his word and delivered.
"I knew I had to get better,'' Ball said, "and I had to stay hungry.''
That's so ironic today in light of the fact that Ball has shed almost 40 pounds.
On Monday's national teleconference, Ball referenced his hunger again.
"I'm really, really hungry for this game,'' he said of Saturday's Big Ten opener against Nebraska.
That's due in part to being a spectator the last time the Badgers got a primetime kickoff against a premier opponent.
"This is what I prepared for in the off-season, and I'm loving it,'' Ball said. "I'm making sure I'm staying on top of school and everything so there are no distractions at all this week.
"I'm putting the cell phone away and focusing on Nebraska.''
That's a major sacrifice in this day and age.
UW coach Bret Bielema appreciates Ball's commitment on multiple fronts.
"The immediate effect physically is just the burst in speed and the pure things that you see him do on the football field,'' Bielema said of his weight loss. "A lot of that is because of the heart and mind.
"He's doing some things naturally and instinctive that a lot of people just don't do.''
Bielema has a great deal of confidence that Ball and White can produce in short-yardage situations, even though neither comes close to matching the size of previous UW tailbacks.
"I think we're probably more explosive than we've ever been,'' Bielema said. "I understand we don't have that real big back like we had with P.J. (Hill) and John (Clay) and obviously Ron Dayne.
"But I like the running backs we have. I wouldn't really trade them in for anything.''
Ball doesn't believe the hype surrounding the Nebraska game will be a distraction.
"We're used to it from last year and Ohio State,'' he said. "And also with Russell Wilson coming into the program there were TV cameras on him throughout training camp.''
ESPN is featuring Wilson in a quarterback special to air in October.
"They followed him everywhere,'' Ball said. "It's second nature to us now. We're used to it.''
Positioned outside of Bret Bielema's office was a USA Today
college football writer -- she was waiting for her scheduled 1:15 p.m. interview with UW quarterback Russell Wilson.
Positioned inside of Bielema's office were Wilson, tailback Montee Ball and middle linebacker Chris Borland -- they were crowded around a phone Monday for a 1-800-number teleconference.
The media obligations are part of any game week; especially this week with the Nebraska Cornhuskers coming to Madison for the Big Ten opener.
"There's not going to be anything involved when we're at practice,'' said Bielema. "But there was some outside interest out of the norm and we're doing all of that Sunday and (Monday).
"When we get into our work week on Tuesday, we'll be able to focus on what we need to do.''
ESPN's College GameDay will also be here to validate the magnitude of the matchup.
"Sometimes it's not the media,'' Bielema said of potential distractions. "It's the family requests, the friend's request; the people that want to come to town on Wednesday instead of Friday.
"That's what you've got to be guarded against.''
On the whole, Bielema wants his players to enjoy the moment, and atmosphere.
"We've worked very hard to get ourselves in the position we are today,'' he said, noting that the last time Camp Randall Stadium played host to two Top 10 ranked teams was 49 years ago.
"Hey, we're here. We don't plan on leaving. So let's take advantage of some of the opportunities that are coming in front of us.''
In front of Bielema's office desk are four "action figures'' -- Pat Richter, Barry Alvarez, Elroy Hirsch and Bear Bryant (Bielema was a finalist for the Bryant national coach of the year award in 2006).
Wilson, Ball and Borland were behind the desk taking questions on the teleconference. Radio stations in Omaha and Lincoln were represented. So were the Associated Press, ESPN.com and the New York Times
"I think the level of excitement is extremely high,'' Wilson said of the buzz on campus. "We're excited about it. But at the same time you don't want to be too high.
"You want to focus on what you need to focus on and make sure you're doing the right things at the right time in terms of preparation. We've got to have a great week (of practice) obviously.''
No bulletin board material here.
Borland was quizzed on Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska quarterback. He put him in the same "speed" category with Michigan's Denard Robinson and former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
"Probably one of the best running quarterbacks I've seen on film,'' Borland said.
Who will be the scout team quarterback simulating Martinez for the No. 1 defense?
That honor will fall to Lance Baretz, a walk-on from Franklin High School.
"He might be the fastest guy on our football team,'' Bielema said. "But I'm not saying he's Taylor Martinez, otherwise he might be playing (for us).''
Ball fielded an unusual request. He was asked for his thoughts on the Nebraska running game.
Ball is a running back. On game week, he watches film of the Huskers' defense, not offense.
Shrugging, he still came up with a reasonable answer to appease the questioner.
That was followed by an inquiry on the impact of "Jump Around'' -- the Camp Randall anthem.
"It really gets you hyped for the fourth quarter,'' Ball said.
At about that point, Wilson excused himself for the USA Today
Wisconsin's offensive line will be featured in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated
"At first I wasn't going to do it and then I kind of decided to let it happen,'' Bielema said of his decision-making process in granting access for the magazine piece.
"They did it last week, so it wasn't a distraction to our preparation for this week. How many times has Sports Illustrated
asked to come in and do an article on offensive linemen? It's very rare.''
During last Thursday's team meeting, Bielema starting prepping his players for this week.
"I talked about how everybody has a plate,'' he said, "and on that plate you can only put so much. If you put too much on it, things begin to fall off. ''
On a big platter, Bielema placed a football, a cell phone and an apple.
Each symbolized an area in a player's life; the cell phone being the social component and the apple being academics. Bielema removed the football from the platter and put it on a small plate.
The football engulfed it.
"When it comes to game day,'' Borland interpretated, "you can only handle football.''
"Our kids really have to be great about where their focus is this week,'' Bielema said.
When Shelton Johnson beat out Dez Southward for a starting job at safety -- in a tightly contested training camp competition -- Southward never once thought that he was getting a raw deal.
"Kudos to him because he brought it,'' Southward said.
Being labeled "raw'' is another deal; something that has been following Southward since he began playing defensive back as a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Up until then, he had not played any organized football.
"I never played Pee Wee or junior varsity or any other kind of football,'' he said. "Most players can remember playing football growing up. Basketball is the only thing I remember playing.''
Southward felt like basketball was his ticket to a college scholarship, and much more.
"I thought I was going to be the next NBA superstar,'' he said.
Reality intervened when the basketball recruiters didn't knock down his door.
His stepfather, Eli Rasheed, also had a hand in pointing him in another direction.
"My dad always told me that my future was in football,'' Southward said.
Rasheed, a former defensive lineman at Indiana University, has an eye for talent, too.
He coached high school football in the state of Florida before breaking into the college ranks as an assistant at Florida Atlantic. He has been coaching the defensive line at Toledo the last three years.
Despite his dad's encouragement, Southward wasn't completely sold on the sport.
"I was kind of scared to play football,'' he confided. "Finally, I said, 'Hey, I'll give it a shot.'''
Cliché but true, there are no free lunches at Aquinas, one of the top high school programs in the country. Southward had to prove that he belonged on the field.
"I really didn't do much of anything the first couple of games my senior year,'' he said. "I really felt out of place. They had me playing deep middle, some man-to-man and blitzing.
"I definitely got it into by the end of the season. But I can honestly say that when I came here (Wisconsin) football still wasn't something that I loved to do.''
But his Badger teammates started to rub off on Southward.
"Seeing how hard they worked, how they watched film, how they worked their craft, I've come to love the sport,'' he said. "I want to do anything I can to get better and further my play on this team.''
But he wasn't looking to get playing time at the expense of his friend, Shelton Johnson, who was injured in the first half of Saturday's game against South Dakota and left the field on crutches.
"It was like Coach B (Bret Bielema) always says, 'Next man in,''' Southward echoed, "and that's how we approached it. I tried to make sure I was playing hard and there was no drop-off.
"I love Shelton to death. But if he can't make it this week, I'm going to be ready.''
Whether Johnson returns or not for the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, there's no question that the Badgers are going to need to see development out of Southward, a third-year sophomore.
"Throughout fall camp,'' said linebacker Mike Taylor, "Shelton and Dez were competing for the starting spot and you didn't know who it was going to be because they were both playing so well.
"They're both very similar in their speed and hitting. I definitely think Dez is ready.''
Southward is a naturally gifted athlete who lacks fundamental training and repetitions.
The best way to describe him?
"When I hear that, I know that I don't quite have the instincts that others have,'' Southward said. "I need to have a little better feel for the little things in the game.
"Where I am now is a world of difference from where I was (as a freshman). But I still have a ways to go. I have to keep working on it by getting in the film room and picking Aaron's brain.''
Aaron is Aaron Henry, the UW's senior free safety.
"A guy like Aaron has a million snaps under his belt,'' said the 6-2, 200-pound Southward. "I just want to keep getting more and more snaps and keep progressing.''
Southward has put an emphasis on improving his mental preparation from practice to practice.
"I have to come every day with the mindset to get better,'' he said, "because I have days when I'm playing like a starter and I'm making plays and I'm doing everything right.
"But I also have days where I have a million mental lapses and I look like a freshman. There's nothing out there that I can't do. I just need to be consistent.
"I need to gain the trust of my coaches and teammates -- I need to show them I can help.''
The players won't need any help getting motivated for the Cornhuskers.
Said Southward, "The atmosphere coming into the locker room (after the South Dakota win) was, 'It's Big Ten time -- it's time to get locked in and focused and ready -- it's time to go.'''
Wisconsin's Shelton Johnson doesn't mind having DeMontie Cross looking over his shoulder.
On the contrary, it's been helpful, instructive.
"That's the way anyone gets better,'' Johnson said.
Johnson is a fourth-year safety and Cross is a first-year safeties coach.
It's not like Cross is literally looking over Johnson's shoulder, either.
During practice, Cross likes to stand 20 to 30 yards behind the secondary.
"I know that he loves being back there,'' Johnson said. "When he's anywhere else on the field, he says that he can't tell what's going on.''
Cross, a former free safety at Missouri, doesn't have any problem with his voice carrying.
"He definitely makes sure you hear him,'' Johnson said.
So far this season, Johnson has been making some noise with his play -- including sharing UW's Defensive Player of the Week award for the Northern Illinois game with linebacker Mike Taylor.
"It's a great feeling to see how far you've come and what your coaches think of your play,'' Johnson said of the recognition. "I'm getting more comfortable with everyone around me and the calls.''
That shows up in the stats. Johnson leads the defense with 3.5 tackles for loss. Maybe the biggest difference in his game has been his comprehension of what he's seeing from the offense.
"It's probably just making my reads,'' he said, "and actually believing in my reads.''
In 2010, Johnson got one start against Minnesota while being the backup to Jay Valai. That was a stage in his development where he was still coming to terms with the nuances of the position.
"I know last year I hesitated a lot,'' he said. "If I saw something -- I'd know what I was supposed to do -- but there was that moment of hesitation where you're really not sure.
"I've been able to pull the trigger a lot more this year.''
Even though he's now a starter, he hasn't prepared any differently.
"When I was with Jay (Valai), we would definitely stay together on the game plan,'' Johnson said. "So I don't know that my preparation has changed a lot or been affected by starting.
"Like the coaches always say, 'You're always a play away as the No. 2.' So you have to prepare like a starter. Is there more urgency this year? Definitely.''
Johnson, who hails from Carrollton, Texas, was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team last season. Up until now, though, he has been known primarily for two things.
During a practice, he caught David Gilreath from behind.
During a game, he caught Kyle Middlebrooks from behind
Gilreath can run. So can Middlebrooks. That speaks to Johnson's speed, especially in context with Gilreath who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Ohio State last season.
Middlebrooks had something similar in mind for Arizona State, but Johnson tackled Middlebrooks before he reached the end zone on the final play of the first half.
Dez Southward slowed him down and Johnson made the touchdown-saving play.
Johnson later said, "I hope that I'm known for more than just that one play someday.''
That's what he has been working on this season. More than anything, he has enjoyed working closer to the line of scrimmage. At times, he'll even line up as the nickel back.
"You're right there in the action,'' he said. "You're around the ball. Who wouldn't love that?''
UW coach Bret Bielema loves the way Johnson has responded to an expanded role.
"He's playing his butt off,'' he said. "He had a really, really good game (against NIU).''
Who was the first person he called when he was recognized as Defensive Player of the Week?
"I didn't have to call and tell anyone,'' Johnson said. "My mother (Angela) is on UWBadgers.com all the time. She finds out stuff before I do sometimes. She's my No. 1 fan.''
Johnson's mom is an assistant principal.
"When I went to school,'' he said with a smirk, "I couldn't do anything wrong.''
He's finding the same holds true on defense.
"You have to take the coaching,'' Johnson agreed.
There's more to Rob Havenstein than meets the eye. Well, actually, there's less; much less than the 380 pounds that the UW offensive tackle carried into his freshman season at Wisconsin.
In advance of his first college start Saturday against South Dakota, the 6-foot-8 Havenstein is listed at 345 in the Badgers' media notes; and even that's an overbid. He's slimmed down closer to 335.
"I can actually move,'' Havenstein said.
But one thing hasn't changed.
"He's big,'' said UW senior right guard Kevin Zeitler, who will be lining up next to Havenstein instead of the injured Josh Oglesby. "But he's also very motivated. He wants to do well.''
Added defensive end Tyler Dippel, "He's lost the weight, but he hasn't lost any strength. If anything, he's gotten stronger. You can't say enough about how hard he works.''
A Sports Illustrated writer was recently dispatched to Madison to delve into the success of the offensive line. Work ethic, no doubt, will be one of themes when the story runs in next week's issue.
Dippel has had a front row seat for Havenstein's development.
They've been ramming helmets in practice since last fall.
"Just to see a guy of his size and stature move the way he does is really impressive,'' Dippel said. "He's come a long ways since he first got on campus as far as speed and the way he moves his feet.
"He's a guy who has a great attitude; he's always smiling, always happy. But when it's time to get to work, he does -- and that's what I really like about him.''
Havenstein has been bolstered by all the work that he got during spring practice.
"The spring was a big help for me, especially working with the ones for half the spring,'' said Havenstein, who was then frustrated during training camp after rolling an ankle. "I missed a lot of reps.''
But he's back to where he was before the injury, which is timely. Oglesby, who had been starting at right tackle, injured his knee during last Saturday's win over Northern Illinois.
"I guess the best advice I've gotten,'' Havenstein said, "is probably from Josh. He just said, 'Don't worry about all the outside pressure of everyone telling you that you're a starter. Just play your game.'
"Josh has been unbelievable to me. He has kind of helped me out with the defenses and my techniques. I've hung out with him all last year and this year. He's one of my best friends on the team.''
What's the best thing Zeitler could tell Havenstein?
"Prepare and play your butt off,'' he said. "Watch the film, get every rep you can, learn everything, know it before it happens, take a deep breath and just go play. That's the biggest thing.''
Left guard Travis Frederick has gone through his own transition to the starting lineup.
"His biggest adjustment now is to go out there and trust the coaching that's he had,'' Frederick said. "He's had reps. He's been in games. He practices every day. He just needs to trust his instincts.''
Frederick, who redshirted last season, started four games as a true freshman in 2009.
"Your first start is always a big thing,'' he said. "But it goes back to knowing your playbook. He's been with the ones and twos. Coach Bo (Bob Bostad) does a good job of rotating guys in and out.
"So you get used to communicating with everybody. If something happens, if someone goes down (with an injury), it makes it easier to make that adjustment when they come in.''
That would be the "next man up'' -- Ryan Groy for Frederick, now Havenstein for Oglesby. Despite the injuries up front, the offensive line has continued to function at a high rate of efficiency.
That will likely be another theme in the SI article.
"I can't wait for Saturday, it's going to be fun,'' Havenstein said.
There will be no shortage of incentive, especially playing next to Zeitler.
"Kevin knows what he's doing -- he's quick to react,'' said Havenstein, a high-profile recruit out of Mount Airy, Md. "I know I have to pick up my game to play to his speed.''
Getting up to speed is much easier -- minus the 45 pounds that he's lost.
"It's a process,'' he said. "I'm still working on reshaping my body, changing fat to muscle.''
But he's still big.
UW coach Bret Bielema sounded like he enjoyed reviewing the Northern Illinois win.
"The film was great,'' he said Monday during his weekly news conference.
Not that there weren't things in all three phases that the Badgers must still work on.
"Things that we need to clean up to play better against better competition,'' he added.
But a few things stood out from Saturday; snap shots, if you will.
"Tyler Dippel has been a pure beast,'' Bielema said.
Dippel, a 260-pound defensive end, is the leading tackler on special teams.
On Monday, Bielema was raving about his hustle on the kickoff cover unit.
"If you really want to have some fun,'' Bielema said, "throw on the first four or five kicks from Saturday and Tyler Dippel's just a man-child ... ''
Bielema would like to see more consistency out of Alec Lerner's kickoffs; the last of which sailed out of bounds because of a lapse in concentration and focus, he said.
"But he's really been efficient about putting that ball deep in the right corner. Was it two weeks ago when the guy (Oregon State's Keynan Parker) ran out of bounds at the 2-yard-line?
"It's a very difficult kick to catch and bring it back to the middle -- or bring it up the sideline with some of the hang time. Even if he's hitting line drives, we're getting down there in coverage.''
Bielema's other memorable snap shot from Saturday was Chris Borland on a pass rush.
"There's a play where he took No. 68 (Keith Otis), who's 320 or whatever,'' Bielema said, "and he (Borland) just got a two-hand push right underneath his chest plate and threw the guy up in the air.''
For the first time this season, the Badgers had Borland rushing off the edge on passing downs. "Chris, as we well know, has got a little bit of a knack to be a pass rusher,'' Bielema said.
Borland often frustrated offensive tackles when utilized in that role as a freshman.
"He's just got so much power,'' Bielema said. "It's uncanny what he can do with his abilities.''
Dippel, meanwhile, wasn't the only special teams contributor that got Bielema's attention.
Starting fullback Bradie Ewing was also singled out.
"The NFL (scouts) really like what he does on all four phases of the kicking game,'' Bielema said. "I can't say enough great things about what he's doing from a leadership standpoint.''
Ewing is drawing favorable reviews in other areas, too.
"What we ask him to do as a blocking fullback is good,'' Bielema said. "But what he's been able to do with the passing game is very, very enticing to NFL people.''
Asked about Saturday's opponent -- South Dakota -- Bielema noted that the Coyotes have already upset No. 1 ranked Eastern Washington, the defending FCS national champion.
A year ago, South Dakota stunned Minnesota, 41-38. Quarterback Dante Warren accounted for five touchdowns (three passing) and over 400 yards of total offense against the Gophers.
South Dakota is a member of the Great West Conference; so is Cal Poly, which pushed Wisconsin to the limit in 2008 before losing in overtime, 36-35, by virtue of three missed extra points.
The South Dakota coaching staff has a working knowledge of what awaits them in Madison.
Coyotes head coach Ed Meierkort coached 11 seasons at UW-Stout before taking over the program in Vermillion in 2004, while one of his assistants, Jake Sprague, is a former UW defensive end.
It sounds like their players are ready for all-comers, too, including the Badgers.
South Dakota sophomore defensive end Tyler Starr, an Iowa native, said of the matchup, "We'll hit them in the mouth and see what happens. It's just football. Anything can happen.''
Someone brought that up to Bielema.
"That shows me that he (Starr) thinks he's going to be able to do that,''he said. "So there's definitely things that show you they're a team that lacks no confidence.''
When Scott Starks left Wisconsin, he wasn't sure if he'd ever return to get his degree.
"I really didn't know,'' said the former All-Big Ten cornerback. "I really didn't think about it.''
That's because Starks was chasing his dream to play in the National Football League.
In the 2005 draft, he was a third-round selection (87th overall) of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Kind of my whole mindset, to be honest, was to make it to the League,'' he said.
It's not like he didn't embrace being a student-athlete.
"I still wanted to get a good education while I was here,'' he said.
But when he left school, he left -- dropping classes the second semester of his senior year.
Looking back on that decision now, Starks said, "My whole mindset was wrong.''
Six years later, Starks has come back to the UW to finish what he started.
"Now that I'm back in school, my mindset is right,'' said the 27-year-old Starks, a St. Louis native. "School is almost easier (this time around) or I'm just more interested.''
Starks is taking 17 credits this semester. He will need one more class in the spring for his degree.
If he could do it all over again, would Starks have dropped out of school when he did in '05?
"I would not have,'' he said. "That's one of the reasons why I came back -- to have an influence on these younger guys and help them make some better decisions than I made.
"Not that I made a terrible decision; but I could have made a much better one.''
The NCAA is now in the process of encouraging former athletes, like Starks, to come back for their degrees by creating opportunities for them to coach and go to school.
Less than two weeks ago, Starks began working with the Badgers as a volunteer student assistant; much to the delight of UW coach Bret Bielema, who sees the value in having Starks around.
"While he's finishing his degree,'' Bielema said, "he's got all the same rights and privileges as a graduate assistant so that he can work on the field and in the office.
"Obviously, a guy who has just played five years in the (NFL) is a good example for our kids.''
In each of his first three seasons with Jacksonville, Starks played in every game, starting once. In addition to excelling on special teams, he also served as the Jaguars' nickel back.
Going into his fourth season, he tore a pectoral muscle during training camp which put him on the sidelines for two games. In late September, he returned to play against the Indianapolis Colts.
"I was on special teams,'' Starks recalled, "and I was just running straight ahead -- I really didn't do anything -- when my knee buckled on the turf.''
Starks blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and went on injured reserve.
Over the next two seasons, he played in only a handful of games before being released.
"I was not the same player,'' he admitted. "The ACL injury put a damper on my career.''
Starks had a few nibbles to keep playing but nothing of substance.
"I just made the decision to move on,'' he said. "I wanted to get my degree and I wanted to get into coaching. I talked to coach B (Bielema) and he told me I could help out here and get my feet wet.
"Everyone has welcomed and accepted me. I can get some things on my resume and get my degree at the same time. As a coach, I'm learning the ropes and gaining experience.''
He's also sharing his experience with the UW cornerbacks.
"His first couple of years here were a little bumpy,'' Bielema said of Starks, who was forced to start as a true freshman, "and he can help guys through their own trials and tribulations.
"I love Sparky. He was a key player when I first came in (as defensive coordinator). He was a guy I knew I'd have to win over if I was going to have respect on the defensive side of the ball.
"It's funny because whenever we'd break the defensive huddle, Sparky would always hang on to my hand for an extra three or four seconds; it was like something out of Hoosiers.''
Bielema, fittingly, extended a hand to Sparks to come back on campus. "Hopefully,'' Bielema said, "if everything works out, he'll be my graduate assistant next fall.''
Starks has the potential to be a pretty good role model; especially for someone like Marcus Cromartie, who will be making his first career start Saturday against Northern Illinois.
What would he tell him?
"Just do what you've been taught,'' Starks said. "The coaches have put together a great game plan. All he has to do his play his techniques, relax and just play ball.
"It's the same game that he's been playing since he was 7 or 8. It's still football.''
Starks has been especially impressed with cornerback Antonio Fenelus.
"He has grown a lot since I've been here,'' he said. "He's playing bigger than his size. With his techniques, he's really working his craft.''
The 5-foot-9, 178-pound Starks relied primarily on his speed.
"He's more of a technician,'' he said of Fenelus. "He definitely has some things to work on but from what I've seen, if he continues to improve at this rate, he can definitely play (in the NFL).''
Starks will forever be remembered for one play.
In 2004, the Purdue Boilermakers were 2 minutes and 49 seconds and one first down away from sealing a 17-14 victory over the Badgers in a Big Ten showdown.
On third-and-2 from the 37-yard line, Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton ran a bootleg.
Starks and UW safety Robert Brooks sandwiched Orton, the ball came out and Starks scooped and scored -- sprinting 40 yards with the fumble recovery for a dramatic game-winning touchdown.
"To be honest,'' Starks said, "I still bump into people who bring that play up to me. I would have never thought that would be a play that so many people would remember.''
They still haven't forgotten -- or forgiven -- in West Lafayette.
UW coach Bret Bielema likes to be consistent when he walks into the locker room at halftime.
"Usually, I kind of come in and give my 'The score is 0-0 ... We're going to play well (in the second half) ... Let's hydrate,''' he said.
That would be standard operating procedure; his business-as-usual message to the team.
But it took a different turn for Bielema at halftime of last Saturday's game against Oregon State.
That's when he crossed paths with defensive end David Gilbert.
"A lot of times,'' Bielema said, "kids take a big step when they kind of have that -- for the lack of a better term -- that killer mentality, that sense of 'Okay, I got something here.'
"I know on Saturday, he was having his way with an (Oregon State) offensive tackle and David was going nuts about 'Whoever gets this guy, you should own him. He can't block you.'''
Bielema had not often seen this side of Gilbert -- the raging bull.
"He had been this nice, baby-faced David Gilbert,'' Bielema said, "who I had seen kind of grow into a man right in front of us.''
Physically, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gilbert has always looked the part.
"David has always been genetically gifted,'' Bielema said. "He's just naturally had some intangibles that a lot of people don't have ... (they) don't have the same blessing that he does.''
But it has been a process for Gilbert, who's young for his class. He's a junior and only 19.
Nonetheless, Bielema saw Gilbert in a much different light last Saturday.
"I think that light bulb has finally come on,'' he said.
Bielema was not alone in that assessment of Gilbert.
"It was his best performance since he's been on campus,'' said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. "He got pressure on the quarterback, and he did a nice job in the run game.
"You can see a guy who's starting to peek around the corner -- he just kind of needs that confidence boosting performance -- hopefully that's something that he takes and builds on.''
That's what co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash saw out of Gilbert, too.
"Saturday was probably the best day of football that he's had since he's been on campus,'' Ash said, "or at least since I've been on campus with him. He played at a high level.
"What we saw out there on Saturday is what we've been hoping to see out of David.''
How did Gilbert handle such a favorable report card from the Oregon State game?
"I'm less disappointed than I have been in my career, but I'm not satisfied,'' he said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm glad the coaches thought that I stepped up my game.
"But I know, for me, that's nothing compared to what I can do -- and will do in the future.
"It just pushes me harder each week.''
Gilbert said the biggest difference has been being "more confident in my pass rush.''
That has taken some time to hone if not master. It's still a work in progress.
"I think the thing that he's probably taking to the football field now,'' Bielema said, "is the fundamentals that Coach Partridge teaches on every play.''
Partridge explained, "It has taken him a couple of years to get his steps and hands in line.''
That would be the coordination of feet, hands and/or strikes to huge offensive tackles.
"When you come from Florida,'' said Gilbert, a native of Coral Springs, "we have small (offensive) linemen and people tell you that you're undersized.''
With the help of Ben Herbert and the UW strength and conditioning staff, he has bulked up.
"That's always been one of his issues -- his weight,'' Ash said. "He's tall and lean. But he's gotten a lot stronger and put on a lot of weight. We just have to keep it on him during the season.''
What excites Gilbert the most? "If I can put on a couple of more pounds here and there, I know that it will help a lot,'' he said. "I still have a lot of growing to do.''
At the same time, Gilbert has been growing more and more confident in his own abilities. That was the backdrop to Bielema searching for the right term to describe Gilbert's development.
How about killer instinct instead of killer mentality?
Gilbert nodded approvingly.
"Right before the half when I was getting a lot of pressure on that (Oregon State) quarterback,'' Gilbert said, "you could smell the blood in the water. You could feel that tackle was not comfortable.
"That's just a great feeling because I feel like I'm in control at that point. That's what killer instinct is. You smell that weakness -- that fear -- and you capitalize on it.''
Defensively, the Badgers made great strides between game one and two.
"We're most excited about the difference in effort from snap to whistle,'' Partridge said. "We got a chance to play a bunch of guys (last Saturday) and our tackling was better.
"All the things that everybody in the stands could see that we needed to improve on (from the UNLV game), we felt like we took steps in the right direction.''
It's quite possible that Northern Illinois' dual-threat quarterback Chandler Harnish will be among the best quarterbacks -- if not THE best -- that the Badgers will face all season.
"We have a lot of respect for him,'' Gilbert said.
"But we want to take his head off at the same time.''
Sounds like that killer mentality is becoming an instinct.