Aug. 9, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Two heretofore unheralded second-year college football players, Leo Musso and Joe Schobert, filled as many -- if not more -- interview requests than anyone on the Wisconsin defense after Wednesday's practice at Camp Randall Stadium. Musso, in particular, was popular, drawing the most attention.
It's not the first time that they've been in the spotlight.
Two years ago, Musso (Waunakee) and Schobert (Waukesha West) were first-team all-state running backs. Both were headed for one last prep hurrah in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star Game in Oshkosh. Both were then headed in opposite directions, worlds apart.
Musso had a full ride to Wisconsin. Schobert was walking on at North Dakota.
But there was one final high school game to be played in July, the annual WFCA All-Star Game, and Schobert's star shined the brightest. In leading the South to a 37-0 win, Schobert was the most dominating player on the field, whether on defense, offense or special teams. He opened some eyes.
Although he was excited about playing linebacker in North Dakota's 3-4 defensive scheme, he never made it to Grand Forks. Loving what they saw in Oshkosh, the Badgers belatedly but prudently reevaluated Schobert and offered him preferred walk-on status, which he gladly accepted.
While Musso was redshirting last season, Schobert was lettering. He saw most of his action on the kicking units. Who would have guessed in January, following Wisconsin's loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, that Musso and Schobert would even be in the mix defensively going into the 2013 season?
Schobert, at least, got a chance to make a case for himself during spring practice. After moving from safety to outside linebacker, he got a majority of the reps with the No. 1 defense. Injuries to more experienced players created opportunities for youngsters like Schobert, Vince Biegel and Jesse Hayes.
By contrast, there was no advance warning in April that Musso, still an unknown commodity as a safety, would be turning heads and having an impact in August. Wednesday, in fact, he was asked if he ever felt like he might get lost in the shuffle and not have a position on the team this fall.
"I always say, `Control what I can control, whatever happens happens, and take advantage of any opportunities that I'm given, ''' said Musso, a prolific high school running back who helped guide Waunakee to a 36-game winning streak and three consecutive state championships.
"I knew if I wanted any chance of playing (this year) I had to be ready mentally. That's the biggest thing. I was in the film room every single night; sometimes two times a day. With what's expected of our defense, a lot of different things are expected out of the safeties.''
Addressing the early adjustments that he had to make, Musso said, "It was at first a difficult transition. I didn't know too much about any defense -- defensive techniques, defensive coverages. I'm still working to get better ... it's a little bit of a change running backwards opposed to running forward.''
The last comment was Musso's response to a question about Jeff Lewis, a redshirt junior, who has only recently made the transition from tailback to safety. "Me and Jeff are great friends,'' Musso said. "Any type of tips I can give him or any type of technique I try to help him as much as I can.''
Through the first three practices, Musso was on the No. 1 defense, paired with senior Dezmen Southward, and Lewis was on the second unit. "I think anybody can align next to Dez,'' said the self-effacing Musso. "I feel grateful to be working back there. We have a lot of athletes who can play.''
By all accounts, Musso made huge strides during the summer; a factor in the extended look that he's getting now. How did he test out athletically? "To be honest I don't really remember,' he said, conceding only "there's always room to improve. I felt like I could have done better.''
When it was playfully suggested to Musso that he can take some solace in any line of questioning that has not revolved around his listed height of 5-foot-10, the 195-pound Musso chuckled and said, "Oh, boy, that's alright, too. I'll take whatever inch they give you.''
He'll also take whatever jersey number. Musso was No. 45 at Waunakee and has now switched from No. 28 to No. 19, which was Schobert's number last season. Schobert, who was No. 23 at Waukesha West, is now wearing No. 58. Not necessarily by chance, either.
Schobert is a fan of the Denver Broncos' No. 58, Von Miller; and the late Derrick Thomas, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs. Thomas had his No. 58 retired. Schobert is also a big fan of Ethan Armstrong, who also has been on the move recently -- from inside linebacker to "F'' or Field linebacker.
Armstrong, when healthy, has been able to lead by example for Schobert.
"He was learning Rover so initially I was helping him out on the calls,'' Schobert said. "But he's so smart; he picked up the playbook in a week or two. He has all the techniques down just from having played, `If he a guy does this, you can do this to counter.' He has been immensely helpful that way.''
Here's how Armstrong defined the role of "F'' linebacker: "They kind of describe it as almost a hybrid. You have to be big like a linebacker, fast like a safety. You have to have some range and there will be some calls where you're in the (tackle) box. It's a lot similar to last year's Sam linebacker.''
Schobert's safety reps are paying off now. "It has helped in coverage,'' Schobert said, "because I'm going from covering wide receivers -- covering Abby (Jared Abbrederis) or Kenzel (Doe) -- to covering tight ends. Our tight ends are really good but they're not as fast as Abby or as quick as Kenzel.''
In the 3-4, the Badgers are not only blessed with experience at outside linebacker -- Armstrong, a fifth-year senior, and Brendan Kelly, a sixth-year senior -- but they have a stable of untapped talent in Schobert, Biegel, Hayes, Alec James and Leon Jacobs. "Everybody is teaching each other,'' Schobert said.
It's still early, but Musso and Schobert have been steadily moving to the head of the class.