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After three seasons as a backup, which included a pair of position switches, and playing on special teams, LB Conor O'Neill earned the opportunity to start this season as a senior. He hasn't disappointed and ranks fourth on the Badgers in tackles (39) and is tied for fourth in both tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.0). He has helped the Wisconsin defense to a No. 6 national ranking, allowing only 278.5 yards per game, including only 99.1 yards per game on the ground, which ranks No. 7 in the country. O'Neill and his 25 fellow seniors will play their final game at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. What clicked for you during spring practice that put you in a position to start?
"I realized that time was running out for me very quickly. To have a new coaching staff and have a new scheme, I felt it was the best time for me to take advantage of the opportunity in front of me as a senior and get some playing time. I also knew that I had to work hard to make it a reality. The new 3-4 scheme fits my playing style more than the previous 4-3 did. I feel like I am able to be a bit more free (in the defense) and able to run to the ball more." What has it meant to you to get the chance to start as a senior?
"As much as I would have liked to play as an underclassmen, to finish the way I have as a senior has been a dream come true. To earn the starting job, to be able to play as much as I have, to be a part of this class and be a part of something special like our defense has been this season, it means a lot to me." What has it been like to be a part of the defense's success this season?
"It has been awesome. People doubted us coming in to fall camp, and to see our guys grow on the back end and in the front seven, and to see how we've bonded to become a dominant defense, has been truly unbelievable." This senior class has been one of the most successful in school history, what has it meant to you to be a part of that?
"We are a bunch of guys that, four or five years ago, came in and knew that we had to work. That was shown to us by the seniors when we got here and I hope that, when we leave, that is what we will instill in the younger guys -- that this is a program where you have to work every single day. That shows in the results that we have had on the field. To be a part of all of these guys and be a part of something special has meant a lot." What type of relationships has this senior class developed?
"Five years ago we all came in and had the goal to be a great class and I think that we have done that. All of us can say that we've built lifelong relationships among all of us. We know that five or 10 years down the road, when we have reunions and stuff, and even in the month-to-month and week-to-week, we'll keep in touch with each other. I definitely feel like we've built friendships for a lifetime." What is the favorite memory from your Badgers career?
"This year and just having the opportunity to start. We've also had the Rose Bowls, the Big Ten championships and taking down a No. 1 (Ohio State) team. Even just the highs and lows of the journey has made for an awesome ride. But, to end it like this, has been awesome. It has been unbelievable." What will you miss most about playing at Wisconsin?
"Just being around the guys. This is an awesome team with the relationships, the camaraderie and the brotherly love that we have for each other. I feel like we have guys that will go to war for each other and take bullets for each other, just because of all of the things that we have been through. We also have the greatest fans in the world, there is no doubt about that. I am definitely going to miss that and am just going to miss being around the guys a lot."
- Ryan Evans
Freshmen don't often make as immediate an impact as CB Sojourn Shelton has for the Badgers this season. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native is the first freshman to start at corner for Wisconsin since former first team All-Big Ten selection Scott Starks did so in 2001. He is tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions this season with four to go along with 27 tackles. His early success has many believing Shelton can follow in the steps of Wisconsin cornerback legends like Starks and Thorpe Award winner Jamar Fletcher.
Did you expect to start right away as a true freshman?
"I didn't. I saw my role as someone who filled in, but my personal goal was to be starting by mid-season. I didn't see myself as starting the whole season as a true freshman. It's definitely surprising, but it's something that I've been working for since spring. The guys have helped me prepare for this role and I think it has gone pretty well so far."
What was the most difficult part of the transition from high school to college?
"The details of it. In high school there weren't that many details. You could just go out there, get the call and play. In college there are a lot more details. You have to know your role and your assignments in every possible situation. You have to make calls as a corner, as well, which you never do in high school. As a corner, you have to make calls to the defense to alert them that something is up."
Did enrolling early and participating in spring practice help you?
"It helped a lot. The biggest thing that it helped was that it allowed me to gain weight. I knew that I could play once I got around the guys in the secondary and learned from Coach (Ben) Strickland, it was just a matter of if I was going to be able to put on the necessary weight. I think that's the biggest thing that coming in early helped me with. It taught me how to go about things in the weight room, how to eat the right way and put on as much weight as I could."
Which upperclassmen have you learned the most from?
"All of them. So many of these guys took me under their wing. Dez (Southward) did and James White has, too. James has looked out for me so much and been like a big brother to me. We're from the same city (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) and we knew each other before I came here. When we went home for the summer we went together and I felt like a little brother to him in the airport. He was leading the way. A lot of guys have taken me under their wing, but James has been there every step of the way for me. He's been my support system. I know that if anything goes wrong or if I need to talk about something I can give him a call and he'll lead me in the right direction."
You got the chance to talk to Jamar Fletcher earlier this season, what did you take away from that conversation?
"To be able to talk to somebody who won a Thorpe Award, that's a great opportunity. One day, hopefully and God-willing, I can be in that position. Talking to him was great. I got a chance to hear his story and how he played, which was helpful because I resemble him a lot being a small corner. Being around somebody who has done it, who has played at the next level and been successful here at UW, it was a great experience. Hopefully I get the chance to run into him again."
Coming from Florida, what made Wisconsin the right choice for you?
"The family-like environment. We're all a big family and that's the best part. It has made the transition coming from somewhere so far away so easy. The guys all take you under their wings and make sure that you're fine and make sure everything is going OK. It has been a blessing for me to come here and I'm happy with the decision I've made. I wouldn't take it back for anything."
How much did you know about the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry before this season?
"I didn't know a lot, to be honest. I grew up on the Florida State-Miami rivalry. That's the rivalry that I knew the most about. The minute I touched down and walked around this facility, though, I learned about it pretty quick. I saw the emphasis on keeping the Axe here, learned about the great moments in the rivalry and the hatred between the teams, and I'm ready to see the excitement firsthand, especially going on the road. Going to Minnesota, with both of us 8-2, I'm ready to be in that hostile environment and participate in the first of the many games I'll be playing in."
- Ryan Evans
Redshirt freshman Nate Hammon has moved around a lot in his football career. A star quarterback at Milton (Wis.) High School, he moved to receiver his first year at Wisconsin before switching to safety prior to this season. The move is paying dividends, though, as Hammon -- who has 15 tackles and a sack this season -- has quickly become a stalwart in the Badgers' 3-4 defense and made his first career start last weekend against BYU.
What has been the most difficult part of transitioning from offense to defense?
"Tackling has definitely been the biggest thing. Growing up not tackling much and then getting thrown in to tackling in college football takes a lot of reps. You can do all the tackling drills you want, but until you actually get thrown out into a game situation you can't truly get the hang of it."
What have been the keys to your successful transition?
"I'm trying to be more confident and less timid. In the spring I was really timid and, as a result, missed a lot of tackles. I wasn't as physical as I needed to be and was thinking about everything way too much. I had to make everything a lot more natural, become more physical and play with more anger, as Coach (Bill) Busch would say."Did you expect to be seeing the field this much so early in your career?
"No. After being a receiver last year, I didn't think I would see the field much. I even told my parents this year that if I even made the travel squad I'd be happy. I was just going to keep working and keep grinding. My initial goal was to make special teams, and I did that, so then I set the goal to see the field on defense. I learned from Dez (Southward), Mike (Caputo) and (Michael) Trotter and tried to work my way up."
You were used in single coverage assignments against BYU. Is that a role you welcome?
"I'm definitely comfortable doing that. I've been taking a lot of coaching from Coach Busch. Last week was the first time that I've ever gone against receivers, so that was a big change. It's a little bit harder because you're matching up with smaller and shiftier players and, if they get by you, it's harder to catch up compared to covering tight ends."
What have you shown the coaches that has you rapidly moving up the depth chart?
"I honestly don't know (laughs). I try my hardest to show what I can do in practice. Coach Busch likes having taller, longer-armed people covering tight ends, so I think my ability to go one on one against tight ends helped. That was my initial role and, from there, they are giving me bigger and bigger roles in the defense. I embrace anything they ask me to do each week. I'm just blessed to be seeing the field so much this early in my career."How interchangeable are the OLBs and DBs in the 3-4 defense?
"You've seen Caputo do it and even I have done it a couple times. It's pretty interchangeable. DBs can move down in this defense and, compared to DEs, can play one on one and cover tight ends and slot receivers. It's pretty nice." - Ryan Evans
A graphical look at Wisconsin's 27-17 win over BYU at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday:
Redshirt freshman LB Vince Biegel has found a home as a pass-rushing linebacker in Wisconsin's new 3-4 scheme, having racked up two sacks on the season to go along with seven special teams tackles, which ranks second on the team. A highly-touted recruit out of Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, Biegel is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, Rocky, who was a standout linebacker at BYU in the late 1980s, as well as his uncle, T.D., who played fullback for the Cougars.
Your father, grandfather and uncle all played college football. What were you able to learn from their experiences?
"From the start, football has always been a big part of my life. My dad always emphasized football and hard work from an early age. Football has always been there. My father playing at BYU has a lot to do with football being a being a big part of not only my life, but my brother's as well."
What's it like having your brother, Hayden, playing with you at Wisconsin?
"It's a huge blessing. It's pretty rare for brothers to be able to be teammates at both the high school and college levels. I love having Hayden here. He is over quite a bit and we're always making dinner together and we're going to be roommates next year. I know our mom is happy to have us both in the same spot looking after one another."
Did you try to influence Hayden's decision to play at Wisconsin?
"I think Hayden knew in his heart where he needed to be and that was right here. But, at the end of the day, it was Hayden's decision, just like it was my decision on where to go to play college football. I wanted Hayden to make the best decision for himself, but I did think that this was the best fit for him."
You were recruited by BYU coming out of high school. Considering your family's history there, was it tough to turn down that offer?
"It was a very tough decision. It came down to BYU and Wisconsin and it was a tough decision because both programs are such great programs. Both have good players and good coaches. At the end of the day, though, I felt that Wisconsin was the best place for me and I think that this is where I am supposed to be. I have a lot of respect for BYU, though."
Is your dad going to feel conflicted at all Saturday?
"My dad played at BYU and that's his alma mater, but I think at the end of the day he's going to be rooting for his boys and for Wisconsin. I think he's going to be wearing red and white this weekend, at least I hope so."
What is it like being a pass-rusher in the Badgers' 3-4 defense?
"First off, Coach (Dave) Aranda is a great defensive coordinator. He puts us in the best spots and we are fortunate to have him here, because he's a great coach. He knows how to utilize his players and, for me, that means being a pass-rusher. That's what I am comfortable doing, that's what I'm good at and that's what I'm going to keep doing for him. This weekend against BYU I know we are going to have a lot of pass rush opportunities, so I am looking forward to that."
What makes you well suited to be a pass-rushing linebacker?
"Probably my body type. I'm 6-4 with about a 240-pound frame and can get good speed off the edge. I can get the tackles on their toes, which opens it up for the inside (linebackers). Overall this year I have been grooming my pass rushing skills and getting them where they need to be. I think I've really progressed as the games have gone on."
What have you been working on to see the field more this season?
"First of all, it was coming out and working special teams and trying to be a dominant player on the special teams and kickoff units. I think the coaches see that, that you're working your butt off, and I think I've been able to progress on third downs and now to the point that I can be a first- through third-down player."
Who are some of the older guys you've tried to emulate or learn from?
"Without a doubt Brendan Kelly. BK and I both play the same position and he's been around for six years, so he knows the ropes. From my freshman year to now, and especially this year now that we're both playing the same position, I've tried to learn from Brendan. We're always working after practice and hitting the weights later than everyone else. He and I have the same tough, blue-collar mindset to outwork everyone else. He's a guy that I look up to. I've always been a fan of Brady Poppinga, as well. He played at BYU and for the Packers as a 3-4 linebacker. He's a guy that I still call to this day for advice. He's a good family guy and a good person as well."
- Ryan Evans
Punters rarely get the credit they deserve, but nonetheless play an important role in any team's success. Luckily, the Badgers have a pretty good one on their side. In just two seasons, Wisconsin's Drew Meyer is already among the top statistical punters in school history, joining the likes of former Ray Guy Award winner Kevin Stemke, along with one of the heroes of the last Wisconsin-Iowa matchup, Brad Nortman.How did you get your start as a punter? Is it something you always wanted to do?
"I played soccer through fourth grade and then football started in fifth grade. Football was always my first love. I was the one kid in fifth grade who was able to kick the ball over the goalpost, so I started kicking then and ran with it. When I got into high school my coaches saw something in me and worked with me on everything from drops to steps and swinging up through the ball. They really helped me to develop into a punter and it ended up working out when I got the opportunity to come to Wisconsin."
Who are some of the punters you try to emulate?
"There are so many good ones that have come through Wisconsin. Guys like Kevin Stemke, Ken DeBauche, Brad Nortman, all of them. Brad was huge for me when I got here and really helped me during my first year. He really helped me with pooch punts. I had never really done that Australian-style, nose-down type of kick and Brad helped to introduce me to that."
As a punter, what defines success for you on the field?
"One of the biggest stats that we look for is net yards. It's not easy to have a big average, but net yards include hang time in the equation. You're helping your coverage team and you are helping your team as a whole with net yardage, which is the yardage from the line of scrimmage to where the ball ends up after the return. Because if you kick it into the end zone, or a guy has a big return, you have a big average, but you're not helping your team. So, net yardage is what you look for because that's how you're helping your team." You've employed a rugby-style punt at times this season. What are the advantages to that?
"The rugby punt is a great tool to have because if teams try to load you up, you can game plan for that or check to that. So, if a team comes out and looks like they are going to be coming off one way you can roll the other way. It changes the game a little bit, too. You are able to get the ball on the ground and have it bounce around a little bit, which can make it harder for the return man to handle. It's always great when you are punting into the wind. It just opens up the playbook a little more." What adjustments do you have to make to be able to execute a rugby punt?
"It's a little bit of a different leg swing. I kicked back in high school so it's not as difficult for me because I am used to that type of leg swing. It's kind of like a soccer swing. You have to swing up through the ball, but also have to make sure you're keeping it out there so you get a nice end-over-end rotation."
What do you like about the rugby punt?
"It's just a great strategy because it keeps the defense on their toes. They might be able to game plan on how to stop you in the regular formation, but the rugby punt gives us the ability to check out of that, which throws the defense off."
Brad Nortman had a crucial fake punt conversion in 2010, the last time Wisconsin and Iowa met. Would you welcome the opportunity to run a fake punt?
"It's always fun as a specialist when you have the opportunity to do something like that. It got Brad a lot publicity when he did it, which was funny because he is such a humble guy. But it's always fun. Anytime you see a team across the country run a fake, your eyes get big and it's always something you wish you'll get the chance to do in your career."
- Ryan Evans
Running back Corey Clement has burst onto the scene as a true freshman for the Badgers. He already has a pair of 100-yard games and five touchdowns on the ground to go along with a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor. With his string of strong early season performances, the Glassboro, N.J., native appears well-equipped to carry on Wisconsin's proud tradition of elite runners.
Being from New Jersey, what made Wisconsin the right fit for you?
"The football tradition here, especially the tradition of running backs at Wisconsin. In high school we were all about downhill (running) and coming out of Power-I and that's what Wisconsin is known for, as well, which is what drew me here. UW has a great business school, as well, which I was attracted to. Both school and football made it a great package for me. It's a great blessing to be part of the Badgers now." What's your relationship like with fellow New Jersey native Ron Dayne?
"He has been a great connection for me since day one. I met Ron before I came to Wisconsin, actually. He's been showing me the ins and outs of why I should come here, the benefits of here compared to other schools and what to look for, basically."
What have you been able to learn from James White and Melvin Gordon?
"A lot of patience within the hole. They are a great film study. We always study film together. It's all about making defenders miss, and James and Melvin both do a great job of that. I just want to fall in behind them and try to match them, but try to compete as well."
What's the competition like between you three?
"It is very competitive. Within our running back room and every day in practice we have to go out and try to be better than the next back, because if you're not going to push one another, then you'll be stuck in the same place as where you started." What do you think makes the two-back system successful at Wisconsin?
"It all starts in practice. Coach (Thomas) Hammock always says that what you put out in practice is what you put out on the field. James and Melvin both do a great job of acting like it's a game every day in practice and that's the example that I want to follow."
What has Coach Hammock been working with you on this season?
"Everything, because I am not a perfect back. He is going to try and correct any flaw that he sees within me. It's all about getting vertical and making the right cuts. It's all about getting better each week. Coach Hammock and I actually joke a lot and everyone jokes a lot. It's all about love in the running back room."Did you expect to play right away as a freshman this season?
"That was my main goal. I want to get in and show what I can do. I don't want to waste any time. My redshirt is burned up, but I want to keep it moving and show that I didn't take a redshirt year for a reason." What has the transition been like from high school to college football?
"It all started back at home. I started running a lot of miles to get some wind under my belt. Still, though, when I got here I still wasn't really into college football speed because it moves a lot faster and I had to get adjusted. Week one and week two of camp were probably my roughest weeks, but as week three kicked in and towards the end of camp, I got into the groove of things. It's all about a mental process."- Ryan Evans
Among the players that have benefitted the most from Wisconsin's new 3-4 defensive scheme is junior NG Warren Herring. The Fairview Heights, Ill., native had to transition from defensive tackle in the offseason to fit the new alignment, but the move has paid dividends. It took just six games for Herring to set career highs in tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.5) and he already has a two-sack game to his name.
What was the transition from tackle to nose guard like in the offseason?
"I have had to make a couple transitions since coming to Wisconsin. When I came in I was a defensive end and had to gain weight when they moved me to defensive tackle. It was tough trying to gain and maintain weight while playing inside against bigger guys. But my weight came along and my strength came along and I was able to feel more comfortable. Now this year, at nose guard, they wanted me to gain a little more weight and I was all for it. I am all for new challenges. But it has been a process. There are a lot of things that I need to work on, but I have a lot of encouragement from my defensive line teammates."
Which teammates have helped you the most?
"I watch Beau Allen a lot. There aren't many guys that get to play as a true freshman, but he was one of them and he earned it. Being able to watch him and communicate back and forth with him at nose guard has helped me out a lot. Guys like (Ethan) Hemer, (Pat) Muldoon and Tyler Dippel all push me to get better, too. Those upperclassmen have high expectations for all of us. Going into my fourth year now, there is an expectation put on me to play to the best of my ability."
How has the new 3-4 scheme benefitted you?
"The 3-4 defense has benefitted me a lot. I've been able to utilize my quickness. That's a testament to all of our coaches for helping us and running everything with us this offseason. I have been working on my hands, which I think have gotten a lot better. It has been a good transition for me. I've seen nothing but upside. I am constantly trying to get better, but I am still far away from where I want to be."
You made a half court shot at the Shooting Down Cancer event last season. Do you plan to go again this year?
"I will be there again, but I have to make the free throw this time. I missed the free throw -- by a lot -- last year. I've been practicing. Before practice I open up the gate where the balls are and step back a little bit and start shooting footballs into the little (cart) thing."
You are widely regarded as the best dancer on the team. Which of your teammates do you think could give you the best run for your money?
"Walker Williams. He's pretty decent, but he's not better than me yet. There are a lot of guys with good talent. Ethan Hemer is coming along really well. I have been teaching him some things in the dance world. But I still have a lot of moves that no one has seen yet. I can't tell my secrets. People might try to steal them."
- Ryan Evans
After spending the
first three seasons of his Badgers career as a running back, senior Kyle
Zuleger was approached by coach Gary Andersen this spring and asked if he'd
consider a move to safety to help build depth in the secondary. Zuleger has
embraced his new position and has become a jack-of-all-trades for Wisconsin as
a leader on special teams, including returning kickoffs.
What was your first
reaction when Coach Andersen asked if you'd move from running back to safety
"It made sense to me. I actually came to Wisconsin as a
safety, so I didn't object to it too much. The switch gave me a shot to come in
and make some plays, so I just went along with it."
Did the coaching
staff do anything to sell you on the move?
"They talked up the new 3-4 defense and everything that goes
with it. In the new system, we play a lot of defensive backs on the field at
one time. That was a really good selling point."
What was the most
difficult aspect of learning your new position?
"Just learning everything that goes into a new defense and
switching your mindset from offense to defense is something that takes a little
bit of a transition. But, like anything, if you're doing it everyday it
naturally comes quicker and quicker."
What aspects of the
new 3-4 scheme were the hardest to pick up on?
"There wasn't one specific thing, it was more
all-encompassing. It was a lot of understanding where you need to line up,
where your assignment is and where your eyes need to be."
You've been returning
kickoffs recently. Is that a role that you enjoy?
"It's a lot of fun. Returning kicks in front of 90,000
people is always going to be fun."
You lead all players
in special teams tackles this season. What's the key to being an effective
special teams player?
"You have to play fast. You can't really think too much on
special teams, otherwise you're beat. So you have to play fast."
A lot was made about
the youth in the secondary this season. How have you seen that group develop
and grow so far this season?
"I think a lot of guys are starting to understand the new
defense more and things are starting to become second nature. There is less
thinking and more reacting now. There's always cohesion that can be worked on,
though. You can never be satisfied with where you are at. You have to come in
everyday and work as a defense and as a unit."
What's been the
highlight of your Badger career so far?
"There are a lot of little things, like stuff in the locker
room and the friendships and bonds that you make. But, the three Big Ten
championships have been a great highlight."
What's your favorite
part of game day?
- Ryan Evans
With the Wisconsin football team in the midst of the first of its two bye weeks this season, head coach Gary Andersen instructed the Badgers to step away from football for a bit this weekend. We asked a number of Badgers how they will spend their downtime for this week's issue of Varsity Magazine:WR Jordan Fredrick:
"I'm going to relax and try to get my legs back. I don't have anything planned. It's nice being a Madison boy because I don't have to go too far to see my family. I'm going to try to relax and maybe play a quick round of golf, something relaxing that's not going to wear me out. We all have to get our bodies back, which is the biggest thing."LB Chris Borland:
"I'm going to lay low. We've had a pretty stressful schedule for the last few weeks since camp, so it will be nice to just watch some football on Saturday and sleep in. I have to watch the Northwestern-Ohio State game, I'll watch games around the Big Ten and I have some friends that play at other schools, so hopefully their games will be on TV."TE Jacob Pedersen:
"My brother is coming down from back home. I'm going to try to take him out and get a nice deer. He really likes to hunt, so we're going to go out, spend some time outdoors, have a good time and just relax."WR Jared Abbrederis:
"I'm going to go home and probably go fishing and just relax in the country. It's really good to go back there and have nobody to bother you and just hang out with my family."LB Ethan Armstrong:
"I'm going to head back home to Illinois, get my mom to cook a few meals for me and watch some TV."QB Joel Stave:
"I don't really have any big plans. I'll probably just go home and hang out with my mom and dad for the weekend and just relax."- Ryan Evans