Sept. 21, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- When Utah State resorted to a trick play last Saturday night -- a fake punt -- Ethan Armstrong saw it coming all the way. It was not something that he had seen in film study, either. But it was a testament to the powers of observation: Head up, eyes open, expect the unexpected.
“We had just talked about being alert for anything different,’’ Armstrong said of Utah State’s punt formation. Armstrong, a starting linebacker, is part of Wisconsin’s “punt safe’’ unit, which is comprised primarily of players from the No. 1 defense.
“We had been out there a few times for punt safe and I recognized the shields -- their numbers and the splits that they took,’’ said Armstrong. Like many teams, including the Badgers, the Aggies utilize a three-man shield; three blockers, side by side, off the line of scrimmage in front of the punter.
“On the fake, they had two different guys in the backfield and they had wider splits,’’ Armstrong had observed. “So I kind of knew what was coming. They had a guy (a blocker) assigned to me. But a couple of other guys (teammates) made good plays fighting over blocks and knocking guys off.’’
On fourth-and 4 from the UW 48, Utah State snapped the ball to B.J. Larsen, a 6-foot-5, 268-pound defensive lineman who had lined up in the shield. Armstrong brought him down after a 1-yard gain and the Badgers took over on downs near midfield with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
That turned out to be a critical sequence in a field-position game.
“The coaches do a great job of coaching us up on that every week especially on our ‘safe’ units, punt safe and field goal safe,’’’ Armstrong said. “In those situations where we’re kind of expecting something, you have to be locked in. You can’t take a play off.’’
That also applies to playing linebacker in that anticipation has always been a big part of the job description. “That’s the kind of stuff we do normally,’’ Armstrong said. “We look at the splits and we try to get some kind of pre-snap read to get an idea of what’s coming.’’
After looking at UTEP’s offense on film, Armstrong has come away impressed with wide receivers Jordan Leslie and Michael Edwards (“They can make a lot of plays’’), running backs Nathan Jeffery and Autrey Golden and quarterback Nick Lamaison (“He has a strong arm’’).
The Miners run out of a spread and can put a lot of pressure on linebackers. “They really put you in an interesting spot,’’ Armstrong said. “They put a lot of pressure on you. They have the bubble (screen), but they also have the run game inside. We have to make sure our eyes are working right.’’
Vision is particularly important against the zone read, a staple of every spread. Operating from the shotgun, the quarterback will mesh with the tailback and ride the ball in his belly while getting a read on the defense before determining whether he will hand off, or keep it himself.
“First of all, you have to key the offensive line and see whether it’s run or pass,’’ Armstrong said. “Then you have to transfer your eyes and make sure you see where the ball is. You can pick up things on a pre-snap read depending on where the back is, whether he’s near or far, his depth in the backfield.’’
Armstrong will get a chance to renew acquaintances with an old high school teammate Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. UTEP cornerback Drew Thomas and Armstrong both attended Ottawa Township High School. Ottawa is 70 miles outside of Chicago. Both are former walk-ons.
Reggie Love got his first taste of organized football when he was in the fourth grade.
“And I sucked,’’ he admitted, “so I moved on to basketball.’’
Hoops were his definitely passion when he got to Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I played point, shooting guard and a little bit of small forward,’’ he recalled.
Love was good enough in basketball to attract some NCAA Division II and Division III offers.
One was from Lynn University, a D-II program in Boca.
By then, though, he was developing interest in another sport.
Spanish River football coach Ray Berger recruited Love during the spring of his junior year knowing Love hadn’t played since he was a fourth-grader and a member of the Boynton Beach Bulldogs.
“He asked me to come out,’’ Love said, “and if I didn’t like it, there would be no hard feelings.’’
He liked it. And Berger liked what he saw in Love; so much so that he called some college coaches on his behalf. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and assistant Charlie Partridge were on the list.
Bielema first got to know Berger when he was trying to recruit one of his players, Vince Wilfork, out of Santaluces High School (Lantana, Fla.). Partridge also had a working relationship with Berger.
After providing Bielema some background information on Love, along with endorsing his athleticism, Berger told him, “ He’s a really good player and I think you should take a peek at him.’’
Bielema and Partridge followed suit. “We were one of the first ones to really get a hands-on look at him,’’ Bielema said, “and we were the first ones to offer a scholarship.’’
Love was surprised. “I was because the first time they visited, I had a horrible practice dropping a lot of balls,’’ he said. “I didn’t think they’d have any interest in me at all.’’
But he continued to improve during the season, and that drew other recruiters to Spanish River. Even after Love verbally committed to the Badgers, he was still getting calls from schools.
The Miami Hurricanes were among them. Love, in fact, tried to de-commit. That was his intent when he got ahold of Bielema and Partridge when they were in Pittsburgh recruiting Arthur Goldberg.
Bielema remembered Partridge handing him the cell phone in a nearly empty restaurant. For nearly 45 minutes, Bielema made his case for Love staying true to his commitment to Wisconsin.
Love eventually reaffirmed his verbal to the Badgers.
“When I got off the phone,’’ Bielema said, “I got applause from the people in the restaurant.’’
In high school, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Love could get by on his size and skills, even if he was lacking in techniques. “I tried to outrun people,’’ he said.
The Badgers have been breaking Love in slowly to the wide receiver rotation. Against Utah State, he caught his first collegiate pass; a 19-yard completion from quarterback Danny O’Brien.
“He’s just so raw,’’ Bielema said. “But you saw in that catch last Saturday, he’s got some ability to get vertical. He’s a big player and I think his upside his off the charts.’’
Whenever Love has struggled with drops, Bielema hasn’t hesitated to call him out. “Hey, Mr. Basketball,’’ he will chide him, “you can always go back to that roundball, but we play football here.’’
Love has gotten the message. “I’ve got a long way to go,’’ he conceded. “But I think I’m making strides. With Coach (Bielema and receivers coach Zach Azzanni), you have no choice but to get better.’’
Bielema had to talk himself out of it, and not just once. Weighing whether he should play freshman defensive back Darius Hillary or preserve his redshirt last season, Bielema opted for the latter.
“But we were right on the cusp of playing him,’’ Bielema said.
In retrospect, he knows that he made the right decision. He also knows that Hillary benefited from being included on the travel roster, which can often accelerate the growth of a player.
“He’s very into the game,’’ Bielema said of Hillary’s football IQ.
Before he left his Cincinnati home as a freshman, Hillary got some timely advice from his father, Ira Hillary, who told him to be “open-minded about things’’ and have fun playing the game.
Ira Hillary followed that example when he played at South Carolina. In 1983, he led the Gamecocks in receptions with 30 for 422 yards.
Professionally, he played a couple of years in the Arena League and five seasons in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, which included a Super Bowl appearance, and the Minnesota Vikings.
Ira Hillary retired from football after the 1990 season.
“He always told me to go out there and play football with no remorse or regrets,’’ Darius Hillary said. That also meant “just do what you know best and we’ll correct things if they come up.’’
Ira Hillary had an impact on his son’s development. “Growing up, he was more in a coaching role as well as being my father,’’ he said. “He let me know what to do, and what not to do in situations.’’
Whenever he critiqued his performance, Darius Hillary said, “He always kept it positive.’’
That’s still the case today, and there have been plenty of plusses with Hillary’s play for the Badgers in that he’s made a switch from corner to safety, along with serving as the nickel back.
That came about when Peniel Jean was injured.
“It’s nothing I couldn’t handle,’’ Hillary said of his role as the fifth defensive back in certain packages. Speaking of Jean, he said, “We both started learning it in the spring and we switched off.’’
There’s no question that Hillary is still in that learning mode.
“But I’m starting to get into the swing of things,’’ he said. “I’m starting to know the game speed. When I first got here, everything felt like it was moving too fast. Now, it’s starting to slow down a little.’’
As far as adjusting to the safety position, he noted the challenge is “just knowing pretty much where everybody fits’’ in the defense. “Safeties,’’ he added, “are the generals on the field.’’
And he’s just beginning to earn his stripes.