Aug. 31, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
Zac Matthias never counted himself out; others probably did.
Out of sight, out of mind, out of commission (after back surgery).
“He was really limited,’’ said Wisconsin UW coach Bret Bielema.
That’s what makes the Matthias’ storyline so compelling, especially since he will be making his first career start at right guard in Saturday’s season opener against Northern Iowa.
“I’m excited to see him play,’’ Bielema said of Matthias, a redshirt junior and two-year letterwinner from Hemlock, Mich. “He’s another one of our developmental stories.’’
The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Matthias is entering his fourth season in the program. He was a three-star prospect whose prep team didn’t win a game his junior year. He picked the UW over Michigan State.
“He’s a very big kid who can bend and move,’’ said Bielema.
Lately, he has been moving up the depth chart; not to mention bending without pain.
When training camp opened, Robert Burge and Kyle Costigan were the leading candidates to replace Kevin Zeitler, an All-American and a first round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Dan Voltz, Dallas Lewallen, and Matthias were in the discussion; so was the possibility of returning Travis Frederick to guard and going with Voltz, a true freshman, at center.
As it turned out, Burge shifted over to right tackle, where he’s the back-up to Rob Havenstein. Costigan is still in the mix with Matthias at right guard, and Voltz is still the back-up to Frederick.
Lewallen? That could be a storyline for next week since he’s just coming back from an injury.
Rest assured, Matthias will not take his first starting assignment for granted. Not after what he has been through. “It was kind of scary,’’ he said, thinking “I could never play again.’’
Any measurable degree of back pain can generally have that impact on the thought process. “It’s a very different pain,’’ Matthias said. “You’ll know when there’s something wrong with your back.’’
Matthias knew something was wrong last summer when he began to feel a “little tingling’’ in his back. But he didn’t think much of it. Instead, he assumed it was related to a hamstring injury.
“It started to get worse and worse,’’ he said, “and it started to go down my leg.’’
Matthias knew that he had reached a personal breaking point when “I couldn’t bend over or the pain would shoot down my leg and when I was trying to practice my calf would tighten up.’’
In sum, he conceded that the pain “was something that I had never felt before.’’
When he didn’t get much relief after a steroid injection, he opted for surgery in late November. His 2011 season was thus reduced to appearances in nine games, mostly on special teams.
“I had two herniated discs and one was pushing on my sciatic nerve which was messing up my left leg,’’ he explained. “After the surgery, I did nothing for about four weeks.’’
That was only the beginning of his rehab. “For about or month or two, I still had the symptoms in my left,’’ he said. “It takes awhile for the nerve to heal (and regenerate).
“I still have a little tightness in my back and it’s probably a residual from the surgery, I guess. But I feel good, I feel great. I feel so much different now than when I was trying to play with it last season.’’
For two years, Matthias roomed with defensive tackle Jordan Kohout, who was forced to give up football after it was diagnosed that he had two small strokes linked to migraine headaches last spring.
That’s another good reason why Matthias will not take anything for granted anymore.
“Football is something we do,’’ he said, softly acknowledging how quickly it can be taken away.
Joe Schobert had it all scripted out in his mind after his junior year at Waukesha West.
“I was hoping I’d get to the Wisconsin (summer) camp and I’d do good,’’ he said, “and then I’d get a scholarship offer and I would come here. That was the dream.’’
To say that Schobert had a really good junior year was the understatement of the year.
On Nov. 19, 2010, he rushed for 296 yards and three touchdowns in Waukesha West’s 45-26 win over Stevens Point in the WIAA Division I state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium.
Schobert broke the D-1 record held by Racine Park’s John Clay, the former UW tailback.
But he wasn’t done.
On March 10, 2011, he hit a clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer to spark Waukesha West to a 58-57 victory over Arrowhead, the defending state champion, in the WIAA basketball sectional semifinals.
Despite his heroics – despite the numbers that he put up in football as a junior – “Our offensive line was a bunch of studs and I ran the ball all over other teams’’ – his dream didn’t materialize.
“It just really didn’t work out,’’ Schobert said. In other words, he didn’t get an offer from the Badgers. “And nothing really happened on the recruiting trail with anybody during my senior year.’’
So he was headed to the University of North Dakota as a walk-on.
“I know his name was on our radar,’’ said Bielema. “Bo (Bob Bostad) was in there (Waukesha West), but Bo left in a hurry (first to Pitt then to the NFL). And he kind of got lost in the shuffle.’’
Schobert resurfaced in July during the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star game in Oshkosh – on offense and defense –and the Badgers intercepted him before he reached Grand Forks.
They offered preferred walk-on status, and he accepted.
“It was just kind of a crazy July,’’ Schobert said. “I was comfortable with North Dakota. But when the opportunity presented itself here, I jumped at it. Wisconsin is my dream school.’’
The 6-2, 205-pound Schobert has made enough of an impression on Bielema that he will get the chance to truly live out his dream on special teams during Saturday’s opener.
“He impressed us from Day One when he got to training camp,’’ said Bielema. “He’s a natural football player. He always keeps his shoulders square and his feet are always underneath him.
“He never plays out of balance, and that has allowed him to get on the field as a true freshman in all four phases of the kicking game. He will play on two phases for sure (against Northern Iowa).’’
The Badgers aren’t sure whether Schobert will wind up at linebacker or safety.
“I just want to get him on the field,’’ Bielema said.
Schobert was competing at wide receiver during the first week of camp.
“I like defense, and I feel like I’ll get bigger and end up at linebacker,’’ he said.
Schobert had been wearing No. 8 on defense.
“But Isaiah Williams (a sophomore receiver) has No. 8,’’ he said, “and he has seniority.’’
Schobert will be No. 19 on Saturday, and the number really doesn’t matter.
“I’m just happy to have a Wisconsin jersey on,’’ he said.
It’s one thing to make the move from linebacker to fullback. Just ask Derek Watt.
It’s another thing to make the move from linebacker to defensive tackle. Just ask Jake Keefer.
Fact is, Bielema asked Dan Keefer who coached his son Jake at Baldwin-Woodville High School.
“Dan works our summer camp,’’ Bielema said, “and I actually approached him and asked, ‘What do you think your son would do if we moved him to defense?’ He thought he would jump at it.
“So the next day, I brought Jake into my office and he jumped all over it.’’
Jake Keefer could see the logic in switching. “I was surprised at first because I’ve always played linebacker,’’ he said. “But looking at the whole situation, I thought it would be a great opportunity.’’
Keefer benefited from having most of the summer to adjust to the idea of playing D-tackle. He has already increased his weight from 228 to 250-pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.
“During springball, I contemplated making the move with Jake,’’ said Bielema. “I saw his body getting bigger and it looked like he was restraining it. He’s going to be a very good player.
“I know the Packers have more guys in the 6-2- to 6-4 and 220-to-240 range than anyone else. And we’ve kind of adopted the same thing here over the years.
“If you get enough of those athletes – in that height and weight range – they can either stay at their recruited position or they can grow into another position.’’
Keefer, who will wear No. 93, has the perfect mentor in strength coach Ben Herbert who made the move from linebacker to the defensive line during his UW career.
“It’s really cool to hear his story,’’ Keefer said, “and see that it has been done before.’’
Keefer and Watt have had plenty to talk about, too. Watt was moved to fullback on Media Day.
“He’s a buddy of mine and we see a lot of similarities in changing positions,’’ Keefer said.
Bielema sees something else in Watt; the potential to be the best fullback that he’s coached.
“It’s just unbelievable,’’ Bielema said. “In my coaching career, I’ve probably never seen a kid take to another position as quickly and easily as that kid has.’’
That kid – the younger brother of J.J. Watt – will be No. 34 and hit the field running on Saturday.
“I’m proud of what he has done so far,’’ Keefer said.