Sept. 28, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- The irony may not have been lost on Wisconsin defensive end Konrad Zagzebski, who shouldered a far greater load in the UTEP game because of injuries to David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon.
Zabzebski, who has dealt with multiple surgeries on his shoulders, has always been the “Next Man Out’’ instead of the “Next Man In’’ because he couldn’t stay healthy.
Obviously, he wasn’t happy to get playing time at the expense of his teammates. But he was grateful for the opportunity to contribute and get some much needed exposure in a game situation.
“It felt good to be back out there,’’ said Zagzebski, a redshirt sophomore from Weston, Wis., 45 miles east of Eau Claire. “You can’t put a price tag on those reps and that game-speed experience.’’
Especially since he hasn’t been able to get on the field in the past because of injuries. “It’s the name of the game,’’ he conceded. “Football is a physical game and I’ve struggled to stay healthy.’’
Getting more than 30 snaps against UTEP was a breakthrough for the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Zagzebski. “That tape to me is like gold,’’ he said. “There are so many things that I can improve on.’’
There were so many things that he did well, too, particularly after the defensive end rotation was further depleted when Tyler Dippel, a starter against UTEP, got leg-whipped during the game.
This position group has taken its share of hits. UW defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has been using duct tape on most of his edge rushers, though Gilbert did return to practice Wednesday.
But after Gilbert made some disparaging comments about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's passing ability, UW coach Bret Bielema said Gilbert would not start Saturday night.
Neither Kelly, nor Muldoon will be available again this week. Dippel and Zagzebski will be the starters. Gilbert, Jesse Hayes, James Adeyanju and Jake Keefer will come off the bench.
“I just need to keep preparing on the little things every week,’’ Zagzebski said, “and I need to keep studying the older players just to see how they’re doing things. Everybody’s time comes.’’
Zagzebski’s timing couldn’t have been better than it was in the first quarter last Saturday when he blocked a UTEP extra point kick, which Devin Smith scooped up and returned for two points.
“I give a lot of credit to Warren (Herring) who had a great push on the guard,’’ Zagzebski said. “I had the easy job of running through the outside shoulder (of the blocker) and putting my arm up.’’
The Badgers recruited Zagzebski as a linebacker knowing that he had the potential to add weight and make the transition to defensive end, which he also played at D.C. Everest High School.
“There has definitely been a physical aspect to the move from linebacker,’’ he said. “It was an adjustment. With the mental side, it’s a whole other language going from high school to college.
“You have to be patient and you have to learn (the position). Not everybody is a Chris Borland or one of those guys who jumps right in there and plays.’’
Zagzebski has a lot of respect for Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009. In general, he respects the game of football, which can be traced to his DNA.
“My dad played (at UW-La Crosse), my uncles played (at UW-Eau Claire) and my grandpa played,’’ he said with pride. “It has always been the sport to play in our family.’’
That comes from the heart, which is something else that you need to know about 20-year-old Konrad Zagzebski. His heart has always been in the right place when it comes to helping others.
That also goes for his younger sister, Ingrid, a UW sophomore. In high school, they founded a non-profit organization -- Athletes With a Heart -- that raised money for a local children’s hospital.
“We wanted to give back to our community,’’ he said.
Since reuniting on the Madison campus, Konrad and Ingrid Zagzebski have teamed up with the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin to establish “Badgers With a Heart.’’
The goal is to improve resources for children with autism while also providing support to their families -- in turn recognizing the “hearts’’ of UW students committed to making a difference.
“I have to give my little sister a ton of credit; she’s very driven,’’ he said. “It’s hard in the fall; I don’t get too contribute as much. But when I have a little more free time, I try to help in any way I can.
“Charity work is kind of an addictive thing. Once you start working with these kids, once you see what they’re going through, it puts everything in perspective.’’
Kyle Costigan got re-energized just thinking about it -- his first college start.
“It was awesome,’’ said Costigan, who started at right guard against UTEP. “To be honest, it was probably the best moment of my life when you think about all that work …’’
All that work that it took to make a successful transition from defensive tackle to the O-line and the satisfaction derived from “finally seeing it all come to fruition,’’ Costigan acknowledged.
Was he nervous about starting for the first time? “Slightly,’’ said Costigan, a redshirt sophomore. “But I’d say I was at a perfect level. I was anxious and excited; more excited than anything.
“That first snap is when you’re the most nervous, most jittery. After that first series, you realize you’re just out there playing football and you can’t let the thousands of people (watching) get to you.
“It all comes down to you and the other guy.
“It’s not anything different than that unless you make it that way.’’
Costigan has experienced those one-on-one matchups from both sides.
The Badgers thought that he would wind up on the offensive line. That was the projection when they were recruiting him out of Muskego High School, where he was a top defensive lineman.
As a freshman redshirt in 2010, Costigan was a member of the scout team offense but moved to the scout team defense by the end of the season because of injuries.
In 2011, Costigan saw limited playing time in the defensive tackle rotation before injuring his foot in September. That put him on the shelf for the rest of the season.
When he finally got back to the practice field last spring, he was an offensive guard.
“My technique obviously isn’t going to be the best; it’s a new position and it’s hard,’’ said the 6-4, 305-pound Costigan. “But I try to be an effort guy and try to be as physical as possible.’’
That aggressive defensive mentality and physical presence on the line of scrimmage has won over Bielema who referenced the “energy’’ that Costigan brought to the O-line last Saturday.
“I thought he was engaged,’’ Bielema said. “He was very excited to get the start.’’
Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning his techniques, and he’s already making progress.
“Early on, you’ll see there’s some plays,’’ Bielema said, “where he gets on the right guy, covers him up, stays on him and gives our guys (running backs) a chance to have success.’’
Costigan felt like the offensive line took a “big step forward’’ against UTEP.
“Coach (Bart) Miller is a big reason for that,’’ he said, “just the way he conducts himself and teaches a little different technique and the way he emphasizes physicality and intensity.
“I really like him as a coach. He gets me fired up before every practice and game.’’
Now that the Badgers are entering Big Ten play, there will be no shortage of motivation.
“It’s not like we took any of our nonconference games lightly,’’ Costigan said. “But there’s just a different, unspoken type of intensity and focus now.’’
It doesn’t take a “difference-maker’’ to point out the difference that takeaways can make. But take it from UW assistant coach Ben Strickland, “It could be the difference between winning and losing.’’
As a UW player, Strickland was part of a “game-changing’’ sequence in a dramatic 2005 win at Minnesota. Jonathan Casillas blocked a punt and Strickland fell on the football in the end zone.
That was later recognized by ESPN as Pontiac’s Game-Changing Performance of the Year.
Takeaways, in this context, can be game-changers. They were in last season’s win over Nebraska. The Badgers intercepted quarterback Taylor Martinez three times.
Two of them came late in the first half and definitely impacted the momentum of the game. Mike Taylor and Aaron Henry each had picks that were converted into touchdowns.
That helped turn a 14-13 deficit into a 27-14 halftime lead.
On the defense’s inability to force a turnover this year, Strickland said, “There have been several times where we’ve had opportunities to get takeaways; the ball has been in our hands.
“But it’s just a matter of understanding those opportunities are limited and when you’re in a position to make a play -- because you’re doing your job -- then you have to make that play.
“As far as takeaways, pursuit makes up for a lot of things and we have to continue to pursue to the ball well and when we’re in the right spots, and the play comes to us, we have to take advantage.’’
Historically, the Cornhuskers have been turnover prone because of their option attack. Through four games, they’ve fumbled nine times and lost seven. Only Maryland and Navy have lost more (8).
Martinez, though, has been picked off just once in 92 passing attempts. He has thrown for nine touchdowns while completed 71 percent of his passes. He ranks 10th nationally in passing efficiency.
“He’s definitely a better passer this year,’’ Strickland said.
Offensively, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in total offense (541.8). In addition to averaging 48.5 points, the Huskers have rushed for at least 250 yards in each of their first four games.
“The biggest thing to understand is that they’re going to give you a lot of pictures,’’ Strickland said. “They’re going to run the ball and try to get you with their play-action passes.
“You have to read your keys and understand that they’re going to run a lot of different formations but run a lot of similar plays.’’
Safety Michael Trotter will be making his first road start for the Badgers after replacing the injured Shelton Johnson. Strickland believes that his preparation should allow him to play fast.
“Whether he was a backup or the starter, he has always prepared by getting extra time in and coming in here and watching film,’’ Strickland said. “At safety, you have to communicate a lot.
“He’s obviously a smart kid, and we have a lot of trust in him.’’
You can trust Strickland when he says Big Ten games bring a different urgency. “You approach every week with the same mental preparation, or you should,’’ he said. “But this is a whole different level.’’