April 18, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- Two years ago, Jon Budmayr, Travis Frederick, Jordan Kohout and David Gilbert rushed the same Big Ten fraternity. As the equivalent of second-semester college pledges - mid-term high school graduates - they got thrown into the mix during spring football practice at Wisconsin.
"When you're in high school, you're the all-star and you can almost dominate everybody without much effort,'' Kohout said at the time of his orientation. "But when you get here, you have to give effort on every single play because that guy across from you outweighs you by 30 or 40 pounds.''
Kohout, an All-State defensive tackle from Waupun, had to keep reminding himself, "Hey, there's a reason why I'm here. React to what happens and don't think so much about it. I know what I'm doing - I just don't know what I'm doing as much as some of the older guys here do.''
Two springs ago, Gilbert was all of 17 when he took on the brave new world of college football. Worse yet, from a competitive standpoint on the practice field, he was an undersized defensive end. One of his first memories was being matched against Josh Oglesby in a pass-rushing drill.
"He was about 330 and I was about 203,'' Gilbert said with a sigh.
"I was very light, let's keep it at that,'' he said. "I do remember it was rough. I'd come off the line as hard as I could ... I'd strike him (Oglesby) as hard as I could ... and he'd just move back and sit down in his stance and start pushing me back ...''
Back, back, back, back.
"I had to wait until I got a little more weight room strength (to compete),'' Gilbert said.
Consider how far Gilbert and his classmates have come since the spring of 2009: Gilbert is starting at defensive end, Kohout is starting at defensive tackle, Frederick is starting at left guard (after starting four games as a freshman and redshirting last season) and Budmayr is starting at quarterback.
Two springs ago, the defensive end rotation featured O'Brien Schofield, J.J. Watt and Brendan Kelly. Another candidate, Louis Nzegwu, was sidelined for most of the spring with a knee injury. Schofield and Watt went on to become All-Big Ten players, while Kelly has battled a series of injuries. Kelly is competiting again for playing time this spring behind the starters: Gilbert and Nzegwu, a fifth-year senior. Also factoring into the rotation at defensive end have been Pat Muldoon, Warren Herring, and Jake Irwin. Tyler Dippel, who lettered last season, has been injured.
"I don't care to hear any noise about how we're young,'' Gilbert said. "It's about daily improvement and getting as good as we can be for the whole defensive line group.''
Entering his third spring practice, Gilbert is all of 19 now. He'll be 20 in October. Physically, he looks much different than he did when he first arrived on campus. He has beefed up to 240 pounds. Ideally, he'd like to return in the fall at around 250 or 255. But he understands the challenge.
"I have to be patient with myself,'' Gilbert said.
When he was in high school (Northeast), there were the inevitable comparisons with another defensive end from the same Florida county (Broward County) who was "discovered'' by the Badgers at Pembroke Pines. That player was Erasmus James, who developed into an All-American. Gilbert, meanwhile, is just trying to take advantage of the experience that he has gained.
"I know what it's like, I know what to expect,'' he said. "The game day atmosphere doesn't make me nervous anymore. I can use that for motivation and that's a great tool to have.''
The Badgers have been experimenting with different personnel groupings up front, including one which had first-year tackle Beau Allen lining up at defensive end. At 320, Allen is about 20 pounds lighter than he was last fall when he was an integral component of the rotation at the inside techniques.
"I feel like I have more endurance and I'm a little quicker,'' he said. "That was a crash course last season. But I'm glad that I got the experience playing with the older guys because it's helping me now.''
Does he still feel like a freshman?
"Now that I'm getting older,'' said Allen, who didn't complete that thought knowing how funny that sounded even to him.
"Well, I am only 19 - 20 in November - I guess what I mean as you mature as a player, you don't feel as young on field. By getting more reps, I'm aging.''
Patrick Butrym is the only senior in the group. Opposite him could be Kohout, Ethan Hemer (who started against TCU in the Rose Bowl) or Allen. Also getting reps are Eriks Briedis and Kyle Costigan.
"We have a lot of guys who have gotten a lot of playing time at D-tackle,'' Allen said. "It's very competitive. But it's not a bad kind of competitive. We all get along and try to help each other out. Every day we're trying to improve and get better. It's kind of a friendly competition.''
At the end of a recent practice, Allen was asked about his pass coverage skills in that he was deployed as a defensive end on a "Zone Dog Blitz.'' Allen was beaten soundly on a wheel route.
"I really didn't know what I was doing,'' he said, grinning. "I got burned but thankfully it was an overthrow.''
That's the beauty of April football - it's a time to tinker with alignments with no penalties; and a time to grow as a player.
"It's a lot different when you have experience under your belt,'' Allen said.