Aug. 14, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- As Rafael Gaglianone paused to line up the field goal attempt, the freshman placekicker was serenaded by his Wisconsin teammates who broke out with an “Ole, Ole, Ole’’ chant in an attempt to distract the former youth soccer player from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
It not only hit home with Gaglianone, but it was music to Lubern Figaro’s ears.
“I grew up in a soccer family,’’ said Figaro, a freshman safety. “My dad was a soccer player.’’
Figaro (pronounced fi-GAR-oh, not FIG-uh-roh) was born in Haiti. His family immigrated to the United States when he was four years old. As he grew older, Figaro gravitated to basketball, taking the lead from his cousins, one of whom was Nerlens Noel, who went to Kentucky for one year before leaving for the NBA.
Figaro didn’t play football until he was a freshman at Everett (Mass.) High School.
“I was always a basketball guy,’’ he said.
But when approached, he was willing to see what he could do in another sport.
“I just used my athletic ability towards playing football,’’ he admitted.
It worked. Figaro was a key contributor on Everett’s three straight state championship teams. And it earned him scholarship offers from three of the Power Five Conferences: the Big Ten, the SEC and the ACC. Ultimately, he picked Wisconsin over Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Boston College.
Unlike his freshman teammate Austin Hudson who enrolled for the second semester of classes and took part in spring practice, Figaro joined the Badgers over the summer. After a recent practice, Figaro confided that he had a lot of ground to cover and “I’m really still learning the sport.’’
He’s obviously a quick study because he has already played his way on to the UW’s depth chart. With sophomore Leo Musso recovering from an injury, Figaro has been taking a majority of the snaps this week at free safety in tandem with strong safety Michael Caputo on the No. 1 defense.
“I thought I could play as a true freshman,’’ said the 6-foot, 179-pound Figaro, who wears jersey No. 31. “Coach (Bill) Busch told me that I’d have a chance to play at safety and I have pushed myself every day doing all of the little things right.’’
Busch noticed Figaro while recruiting his Everett teammate Jakarrie Washington, who was a member of last season’s UW freshman class. Washington has since been dismissed from the program. “When I was there (at Everett),’’ Busch recalled, “They were like, ‘Take a look at this guy (Figaro).’’’
Busch liked what he saw, especially after watching him play basketball. “On the court, he was amazing,’’ he said. “He’s so highly competitive that he played press-man coverage every second. He scored about 15 points but they were mostly on steals and layups and free throws. That type of deal.’’
Whenever Busch asked others about Figaro, they also raved about his defensive tenacity. “He was known throughout the city of Boston as an in-your-face defender,’’ he said of his basketball reputation. “They’d put him on the best scorer. And he was always right there, right in their face.’’
Figaro still stays in touch with his cousins, the Noel brothers. Jim played defensive back at Boston College; Rodman is a senior linebacker at NC State, and Nerlens, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, is hoping to bounce back in Philadelphia after missing last season with a torn ACL.
The 6-11 Noel, who was a wide receiver through his sophomore year, and Figaro just exchanged text messages. “He asked, ‘How are you doing?’’’ Figaro said. “He’s doing good and I know he’s going to have a big year (with the 76ers). He always worked hard and I looked up to him and his brothers.’’
Figaro has given every indication that he’s going to have a big year with the Badgers. “Everything is so much faster here,’’ he said. “You have to be a split second ahead of the quarterback before he makes the play. You have to read his eyes and you have to know what’s happening before it happens.’’
His anticipation skills, among other things, have allowed him to play early.
“The thing that flashed the most in camp has been his initial quickness,’’ Busch said. “He has a cat-like quickness so you knew he could react well. Some guys just run, they’re just fast. But football guys have that quickness and they can adjust and do things.
“That was probably one of Chris Borland’s biggest strengths – that initial quickness. We talk about it all the time, there’s nothing more important in recruiting than your initial quickness by position. The game is based on it, especially defense. We’re reactionary people.’’
Busch has also liked the way that the aforementioned Hudson, an 18-year-old freshman from Tampa, Florida, has reacted in many situations during his on-going adjustment to playing “centerfield’’ on defense. Physically, he hasn’t filled out yet. “But I like how he’s coming along,’’ Busch said.
Since last spring, Hudson has added 27 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame.
“Oh, man, I ate so much,’’ he said with a sigh. “When I came in here, I was pretty weak and it was pretty embarrassing, actually. But we have a great training staff and they worked with me and gave me a nutritional plan to follow and it ended up working.’’
Hudson is up to 205 pounds.
“It was definitely a decision that paid off, no tonly with football, but socially,” said Austin Hudson on enrolling in January.
“They made sure I gained the right weight,’’ he said, “and I didn’t lose speed.’’
In retrospect, he was glad that he jump-started his college clock as a mid-term enrollee.
“I would just say I felt more comfortable going into fall camp,’’ he said. “I got to know my teammates and a lot of guys helped me out with the defense in the spring. It was a tough process. But I learned a lot. It was definitely a decision that has paid off, not only with football, but socially.’’
By that, he means that he was able to get a feel for the academic landscape and “I learned how to acclimate with tutors.’’ In addition, he discovered the good places to eat on campus. “I’m happier than when I first got here,’’ he went on, “because I’m a lot more used to it.’’
Hudson feels like he has put himself in a good place from the perspective of “whatever I have to do to contribute to the team, I’m an option now and that’s nice to know.’’ He also noted, “We need to find our roles in the secondary … we just have to find out where we’re going to fit.’’
Sophomore safety Joe Ferguson has been impressed with how Hudson and Figaro have adapted.
“Those two guys are great and they’ve been working really hard,’’ said Ferguson, the former Madison Memorial quarterback and defensive back. “I knew what he (Hudson) could do based on the spring and he showed right away that he could catch on quickly and he has been playing well.
“But Lubern has caught on faster than I did (as a true freshman) or any other safety that I came in with. He already knows as much as the other safeties, it seems, except maybe Mike (Caputo). Both of those guys are really impressive and will contribute right away.’’
Despite injuring his shoulder (torn labrum) on the first day of contact last season, Ferguson was contributing on special teams – “It was hindering me a little but I thought I could keep playing’’ – until he was finally shut down in mid-October. Still, he got to experience trips to Arizona State and Ohio State.
“Another big thing,’’ he said, “was game-planning each week with coach Busch and the older safeties. It showed me how you plan and practice for an opponent. The hardest part has been the conditioning to get back in shape because I didn’t run for four months. It has been a grind getting back.’’
Busch has been encouraged by how the 210-pound Ferguson has practiced, especially this week. “He’s doing a nice job for us playing in our big package,’’ he said. “He’s physical; his strengths are closer to the ball. But I expect him to be a major player for us on special teams, too.’’
At the end of Wednesday’s morning practice, Busch couldn’t resist teasing Figaro, who was getting ready to be interviewed by a local television crew. Figaro made the media rounds. Standing a few away, Busch listed some of the things that have stood out about Figaro during training camp.
“High effort, high football intelligence,’’ Busch said, “and he doesn’t flinch.’’
That type of recommendation can go a long ways around here.