Aug. 30, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
On Oct. 16, 2010, Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for a career-high four touchdown passes in a 45-14 win over Syracuse in the Big East opener at the Carrier Dome.
The final score of the game came on a 6-yard throw from Sunseri to starting tight end Brock DeCicco, a redshirt freshman from Jefferson Hills, Pa.
It was DeCicco’s first reception as a college football player.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt announced the following Monday that DeCicco had been named the team’s Defensive Player of the Week for his seven tackles and forced fumble against Syracuse.
Defense? DeCicco? A two-way player? Not at all.
Wannstedt was singling out the DeCicco who played safety and nickel back for the Panthers. That was No. 31, Dom DeCicco, not to be confused with his younger brother, No. 81, Brock DeCicco.
“He had a lot of influence on me,’’ Brock said of Dom. “Tough, hard worker, led by example.’’
On Jan. 8, 2011, Pitt neutralized Randall Cobb and beat Kentucky, 27-10, in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. The Panthers dedicated the win to Wannstedt, who had been forced to resign.
Wannstedt’s replacement was Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, who was hired on Dec. 16. Less than three weeks later, he was fired after a domestic violence arrest.
Wannstedt’s defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett, was the acting head coach in the bowl game that saw Sunseri complete only one touchdown pass -- a 13-yard corner route to Brock DeCicco.
It was DeCicco’s second reception as a college football player, and his last at Pitt.
Eight months later, less than a week into the 2011 preseason training camp, DeCicco left the program that was then in the hands of first-year head coach Todd Graham.
“They went to a spread offense,’’ DeCicco said, “and I wanted to play a true tight end position.’’
That led DeCicco to Wisconsin, which had been on his recruiting short list all along. Assistant coach Joe Rudolph, a Pennsylvania native, was the lead recruiter for the Badgers.
“This is where I would have come (originally),’’ DeCicco said of Madison, “but Pitt was 20 minutes from my home and this was 11 hours. It was between Pitt and here coming out of high school.’’
Better late than never. You can take that a couple of ways if you’re DeCicco. After transferring to the UW, he was relegated to sit out the 2011 season, which he spent working on the scout team.
DeCicco was looking forward to playing for Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who has a solid reputation for getting the most out of his tight ends.
But after Graham bolted for Arizona State -- which just happens to be on the UW’s schedule this season -- Pittsburgh hired Chryst as its new head coach and Chryst wound up taking Rudolph with him.
Last season, DeCicco was an afterthought in Matt Canada’s offense -- Canada replaced Chryst as the coordinator and DeCicco didn’t catch a break or a pass -- but he did contribute on special teams.
The offseason brought more changes and another transition for DeCicco, who’s now playing for head coach Gary Andersen, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and tight ends coach Jeff Genyk.
If you’re keeping score at home, the line of succession -- of the head coaches alone -- has been Wannstedt, Haywood, Bennett (interim), Graham, Bret Bielema, Barry Alvarez (interim) and Andersen.
“I think it has been a positive because each coach has their own focus and style,’’ DeCicco said. “So getting all these different coaching points has helped with the little details of playing tight end.
“I’ve become a lot better player since I came here with all the competition.’’
Last season, the Badgers went three deep at tight end -- Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson -- and the rotation has now been expanded to include DeCicco and even Austin Traylor.
“We all get along really well,’’ DeCicco said. “And we all have our strengths.’’
In what area has the 6-foot-6, 250-pound DeCicco gotten better from one year to the next? “I think in pretty much everything,’’ he said. “I’m trying to become an all-around tight end.’’
On one particular play during training camp, DeCicco showed off his athleticism by catching a pass and hurdling a would-be tackler on the boundary. He’s a good route-runner, one of his assets.
DeCicco credited Genyk for helping fine-tune his game. He also cited the positive influence of his father, Dominic, and his brother, Dom, in shaping who he is, on and off the field.
After a couple of years with the Chicago Bears, Dom DeCicco is trying to make the final cut as a linebacker and special teams player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Dominic DeCicco is the head basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson High School. “He’s a no-sympathy-type guy,’’ Brock said. “If I’ve had a tough week, he’ll tell me, ‘You just have to keep going.’’’
That has defined his perseverance through his transfer year, and all those coaching transitions. “I just want to play as much as I can,’’ Brock DeCicco said, “and show that I need to stay on the field.’’
• • • •
Wisconsin freshman linebacker Leon Jacobs had a “Clowney’’ moment (read: Jadeveon Clowney) during the second of UW’s two public scrimmages when he chased down tailback Melvin Gordon.
The 6-2, 225-pound Jacobs, a converted running back, never gave up on the play and brought down Gordon -- 82 yards later. Gordon’s run was wiped out by a penalty but Jacobs’ effort was telling.
Andersen called it one of the best effort or hustle plays that he has ever witnessed.
“My goal was to play as a freshman,’’ Jacobs said. “I want to get the coaches’ and players’ trust.’’
He has achieved the first half of that mission statement and he’s working on the second half.
A week ago, Andersen said, “As much as I praise Leon, there were some moments today in practice where I looked at Leon and that wasn’t a freshman practicing to go play a Big Ten schedule.
“If he plays like that he’ll end up in the 12th row. We need to figure that out.’’
On Monday, Andersen was again asked about Jacobs and how he has handled his business against the backdrop of trying to grasp his role and responsibilities in the defense.
“I’m always concerned when you throw a young freshman out there on the football field,’’ Andersen said, “from the perspective of not becoming overwhelmed at moments.’’
Jacobs’ lack of repetitions has been most concerning to Andersen. Jacobs didn’t play football during his sophomore and junior year of high school, focusing instead on basketball.
“I’m not saying the learning curve is larger,’’ Andersen said. “But it’s going to be bigger and I want to do everything I can to prepare him as a coach to make sure he’s prepared for that.’’
Much earlier in camp, Andersen observed, “He looks great. He runs good. And he appears to be able to mentally handle the transition from high school.’’
He then talked about how the “waters are calming for him and he’s able to go play and react.’’ Aside from the predictable white caps in those waters, there’s something unyielding about Jacobs.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,’’ Andersen said.
Everybody saw that at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, Calif., where he played freshman football, his first exposure to the sport since he hadn’t play at any youth level.
“Basketball was my first sport, my love,’’ Jacobs said. “I wanted to play at a Division I school.’’
He played three years of varsity basketball at Bishop Montgomery with that in mind. But he reached a crossroads and reality. “I knew basketball wasn’t it; so football had to be my ticket,’’ he said.
Jacobs transferred from Bishop Montgomery to Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., 25 miles from Los Angeles. As a senior, he sharpened his focus as a running back and linebacker.
Jacobs became a fan favorite spawning the nickname, “Leon the Phenom.’’
When asked about it, he smiled and said, “I didn’t care; the kids liked it.’’
Jacobs originally gave a verbal commitment to Fresno State, had a change of heart, reopened recruiting and narrowed his choices to Wake Forest and Wisconsin.
UW recruiting coordinator Vince Guinta was familiar with Jacobs having served as the director of football operations at Fresno State before joining Andersen’s staff in Madison. That opened the door.
Jacobs was sold on the Badgers after visiting with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who has installed a 3-4 scheme. Jacob learned one thing about playing defense last year. “I knew I liked hitting,’’ he said.
Although he was raised in Southern California, Jacobs was born in Nigeria. So was his UW roommate, Chikwe Obasih, a freshman defensive end from Brookfield (Wis.) Central.
Physically, Jacobs bears a resemblance to a young Louis Nzegwu, a former defensive end for the Badgers. Their narratives are comparable in that Nzegwu was also a high school running back.
Whereas Nzegwu redshirted as a freshman in 2007, Jacobs will get a chance to show what he can do on the big stage. “I’m sure it will be a great feeling,’’ he said, anticipating Saturday’s opener.
• • • •
As a freshman, Dallas Lewallen was targeted for left tackle. He was there for about a week before he was moved to left guard. He was mainly a guard that year -- when he wasn’t playing center.
Do you see a pattern developing?
“It’s always in the back of your mind where you can contribute in the starting lineup,’’ Lewallen said. “It’s definitely something that motivates you.’’
Little did Lewallen know then -- while he was redshirting as a true freshman in 2010 and snapping the ball for the first time ever -- that he would make his first college start at center.
In retrospect, he can be grateful that former UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who put a priority on versatility, began training him as a center in spite of the growing pains.
“That’s when I started snapping and it was different,’’ said Lewallen, who was an offensive and defensive tackle at Berlin (Wis.) High School. “But I had a great coach teaching me.’’
He feels the same way today about first-year O-line coach T.J. Woods. “All of the guys have really bought into what he’s teaching us,’’ Lewallen said.
Last spring, Lewallen was utilized as a tackle, guard and center. He came into the fall thinking that he would be the left guard -- sandwiched between tackle Ryan Groy and center Dan Voltz.
But an injury to Voltz forced Woods to juggle his starting combination. Groy and Lewallen took one step to the right; Groy to guard and Lewallen to center; while Tyler Marz took over at left tackle.
It’s conceivable that by the time anyone learns how to pronounce Marz (MARE-its) that Groy will be back at tackle, Lewallen back at guard and Voltz, who practiced this week, back at center.
Lewallen is fine with it all; especially since he has endured so much to get on the field at any position after twice dislocating his kneecap and partially tearing his patella tendon; painful setbacks.
“Injuries are a big part of the game,’’ he said. “I’ve taken the mentality of grinding on the field and when you can’t play because of injury you have to grind off the field so you can get back playing.’’
When he lines up over the ball Saturday against UMass, he will be about as healthy as he has been since his freshman year “when I first came in here with no injuries.’’
During his many visits to the training room, Lewallen said, “I tried never to doubt myself. You have to keep working hard and stay positive. That’s the biggest thing -- you have to stay positive.’’
The 6-6, 318-pound Lewallen, who wears No. 73, is positive, too, that if there’s a bad exchange between the center and quarterback, it’s on him. Accountability is not an issue.
“I’ve got to get the snap back,’’ he said. “You’ve got two moving parts; the center going one way and the quarterback reversing out and either handing the ball off or passing the ball.
“Moving apart, it’s me not getting the ball back quick enough (especially) on certain plays when I’m pulling or reaching out for a wider block and he’s reversing the opposite way.
“But I’ve settled in pretty well and I feel comfortable there.’’
Take “there’’ to mean center, guard or tackle.