Oct. 5, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- When it was kiddingly suggested to Wisconsin defensive end Tyler Dippel that he was being held together by bailing wire and duct tape after enduring so many injuries during his college football career, he merely shrugged and indicated that it was all part of the game.
“You have to play through things,’’ said Dippel, a redshirt junior from Slinger, Wis.; 25 miles outside of Milwaukee. “There’s always going to be something that’s nagging you. I don’t think any football player goes through a whole season without something.’’
That’s something that Dippel learned the hard way.
“As a freshman, a lot of things shock you,’’ he said. “You’re thinking, ‘Man, I’m hurting. I’ve never hurt like this before.’ But it is just part of the game. It’s physical, especially once you get to this level, especially when you’re at Wisconsin and going every day against those big bruisers.’’
The reference was to his daily jousts in practice with the UW’s offensive linemen -- the big bruisers -- who rank among the biggest in college football. On developing a pain threshold to the little nicks and bruises, he said, “You kind of get used to it. Your body adapts to it. You learn to like it.’’
A couple of weeks ago, Dippel “caught a pretty good hit to the inside of my knee’’ and limped off the practice field. “I sprained my MCL a little bit,’’ he said of his medial collateral ligament, one of four knee ligaments. “There was some swelling, a big contusion and some bruising.’’
No biggie. That’s how he treated getting leg-whipped at the end of the UTEP game. He had Sunday and Monday to recover and enough time to still get ready for the Big Ten opener at Nebraska, which he started. “With the little things like that,’’ he said, “you just have to be able to play through it.’’
Injuries were really never a cause for concern at Hartford High School, where Dippel was a relatively undersized linebacker and fullback. The first time that he got hurt was as a member of Team USA while competing in the IFAF Under-19 Junior World Championships in July of 2009.
In a semifinal win over Mexico, he had two sacks and a forced fumble, but he also injured his knee and missed the title game. One of his teammates in Canton, Ohio, was David Wilson, the tournament’s MVP, who went to Virginia Tech and was a first-round draft choice of the New York Giants.
After redshirting as a freshman, Dippel has had an uneven three seasons with the Badgers because of injuries, including a torn labrum in his shoulder and an extended bout with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which also required surgery and forced him to the sideline for much of the spring.
But he has managed to persevere. When healthy, he has shown a “high motor’’ in chasing down the ball, particularly on special teams. Some of his UW teammates have even referred to him as the “Tasmanian Devil’’ because of the energy that he expends and his penchant for flying around the field.
On getting more reps at defensive end, Dippel said, “I feel like I’ve improved my consistency and footwork. As an older player, it’s now more about tweaking your game; the fine-tuning, taking care of all the little things like where you place your hands and opening your hips and making your sheds violent.’’
Shedding blockers, mainly huge offensive tackles, is paramount to success. That can be much more challenging with a broken hand, which is what UW defensive end Pat Muldoon is adjusting to. Muldoon returned to practice this week and has been cleared to play Saturday against Illinois.
“I broke my hand my freshman year and played with a club, so I know what he’s going through,’’ Dippel said. “At first, it feels very awkward. You’re used to striking with an open hand, and now you’re striking with a fist. As a D-lineman, you have to use your hands so much, but he’s working his way back.’’
Wisconsin safety Shelton Johnson, a senior captain, has also begun practicing again after breaking his arm in the Oregon State game. UW coach Bret Bielema said a plate or rod has been inserted into Johnson’s forearm and he will play with a protective covering, if he plays at all this week.
Dippel has the utmost faith in the decision-making policies of Wisconsin’s training staff.
“Honestly, no one is going to put you on the field if you can’t perform at a high level or enough to do your job,’’ he said. “I trust the people we have here. Nobody is ever going to force you to do something that you don’t feel like you can do, and that’s a comforting feeling.
“There are always points (during an injury rehab), where it’s decision time. Can you go? Or can’t you go? Our training staff and our (strength) coaches are great at helping us to get to that point as fast as possible and letting us make the decision.’’
Based on last season’s game against Illinois -- the Illini held a 17-7 halftime lead before the Badgers rallied for 21 unanswered points in Champaign -- Dippel is not taking anything for granted here Saturday. “They’re not going to roll over for us,’’ he said. “We’re ready for a fight.’’
Chase Hammond had run the same route earlier in the game “and we knew it was open.’’
On first-and-10 from the UW 25 last Saturday, quarterback Joel Stave lofted a pass to Hammond, who got inside leverage on Nebraska’s Josh Mitchell and made a tough catch for a 30-yard gain. When asked if he had pushed off to get separation, he said, “It was a little positioning, that’s all.’’
It was his first career reception with the Badgers. “A lot of people texted me after the game and it was a good confidence builder,’’ said Hammond, a redshirt sophomore from Youngstown, Ohio. “I’ve been working hard and waiting for that moment.’’
But it was just that, he stressed, one moment, one catch. “You always want to build on what you’ve done before,’’ said Hammond, who dismissed any notion that one play would trumpet his arrival as a college player. “I haven’t arrived at all. I’ve got a lot of things that I need to do.’’
Mostly, he needs to stay free of injuries. That has been a challenge dating back to his junior year at Boardman High School when he broke his ankle in the first month of the season. “The doctors told me I probably wouldn’t play again,’’ Hammond remembered. “I was going to prove everybody wrong.’’
Bouncing back on his retooled ankle -- which was stabilized with screws and a plate -- Hammond caught 67 passes for 986 yards as a senior and earned a berth in the Big 33 game, which annually showcases the top high school players from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Fate intervened again. Hammond suffered a high ankle sprain, which impacted his freshman year at Wisconsin. The ankle didn’t get any better, necessitating not one but two surgeries. In addition, he also broke his thumb, which put him behind even further during his first two years on campus.
After Hammond pulled up with another foot injury during training camp, the Badgers elected to bring him along slowly this season. Throughout this latest stage in his development, including the promise he showed in the spring game, Hammond has taken to the coaching of Zach Azzanni.
“He’s changed my mentality, he’s changed the way I view things in life and football and all of the above,’’ Hammond said. “I couldn’t ask for a better coach. He gives you a purpose; he tells you why you’re doing everything. He has that drive and motivation to be great, and he’s instilled that in us.’’
Azzanni has encouraged his receivers to work “overtime,’’ and Hammond has followed suit. “It’s what you do on your own that’s going to get you on the field,’’ Hammond said. “It’s how much time you want to spend upstairs (in the film room). I don’t get home until 11 or 11:30 most nights.’’
Now, he’s hoping that first catch will lead to more.
“You want the snowballing effect and you want to get better each week,’’ said the 6-5, 217-pound Hammond. “I can definitely improve in blocking and route-running. But the biggest thing for me now is playing with my size -- playing fast -- and using my size to my advantage.’’
Jack Russell heard from his UW strength coach, Ben Herbert.
Kyle French heard from his out-of-season kicking coach, Jamie Cole.
Both heard what they needed to hear.
“Sunday morning, Coach Herb came up to me and said, ‘Do you know what today is? It’s the start of a brand new week,’’’ related Russell, who missed an extra point and field goal at Nebraska. “That was big for me. I also had a lot of support from my family and friends and it all helped out.’’
To summarize their message, he said, “Keep your head up. It’s just one game.’’
Move on. Russell is ready to do so as Wisconsin’s kickoff specialist against Illinois.
Reflecting on his Nebraska experience, Russell said that he rushed the extra point -- “I didn’t wait back long enough’’ -- and while he felt like he hit a “good ball’’ on the field goal attempt, it wasn’t good enough. But was it correctable? ‘’Absolutely,’’ he said.
Even though he was appearing in his first Big Ten game in a very hostile environment, Russell, a walk-on from Waunakee, insisted that the big stage had nothing to do with his missed kicks. “I think it makes it more noticeable,’’ he said, “but when I was out there, it really didn’t faze me.’’
Russell is confident that the adversity will make him better.
“You always have to be ready to make the next kick,’’ he said.
That has been French’s attitude ever since he lost the placekicking assignment to Russell in the UTEP game. French missed an extra point, a field goal and booted a kickoff out of bounds. That’s why Russell took over as the UW’s No. 1 placekicker going into the conference opener in Lincoln.
“One of the main things that I really wanted to focus on after I had my struggles in the UTEP game was to just have a positive mental attitude all the time,’’ said French, a redshirt sophomore from Menonomee Falls, Wis., who lettered last season as Philip Welch’s backup.
“My focus the last two weeks has been, ‘Don’t worry about what happened. Don’t worry about being with the twos now. Don’t get mad at yourself.’ I talked with my kicking coach, Jamie Cole, and he told me, ‘Go out there and have fun and believe in yourself.’’’
French kicked the final PAT at Nebraska and was ready if it came down to a field goal. “If the offense came down on that last drive,’’ he said, “and if I had that field goal opportunity, I felt very confident in myself to go out there and wherever it was from, 58 or 28 yards, I would make it.’’
He will get another chance Saturday to live up to his own expectations.
French, like Russell, will be ready to make that next kick.