MADISON, Wis. — Leo Musso joined Wisconsin’s football program as a player without a position. As he begins his redshirt freshman campaign with the Badgers, he certainly appears to have found a home at safety.
During Wisconsin’s first fall practice of the season Monday, Musso lined up with the No. 1 unit at safety alongside redshirt senior Dezmen Southward on the opening drill. Though nearly four weeks remain until the Badgers’ season opener against UMass, the move was notable. Jeff Lewis, a converted running back, lined up with the second-team along with redshirt sophomore Michael Caputo.
Musso, a 5-foot-10, 195-pounder from Waunakee, Wis., originally was invited to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on but was offered a scholarship by Bret Bielema in January 2012, a week before national signing day. He picked Wisconsin over offers from Northern Illinois and Pittsburgh.
Originally, Musso was listed as an “athlete” when he came to Wisconsin, which is a code word for someone who does not have a defined position. Musso rushed for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns while at Waunakee and was named first-team all-state by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association and the Associated Press. He also won the Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch Running Back of the Year Award as a senior after rushing for 2,398 yards and 39 touchdowns.
With Montee Ball, James White, Melvin Gordon and Vonte Jackson in the fold, among others, Musso never was going to see time in the backfield. But given Wisconsin’s need at defensive back, Musso has found a position that could get him on the field early in his college career.
Following practice, Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Musso’s athleticism made him stand out.
“He runs. He’s instinctive,” Andersen said. “He’s a well-rounded athlete in the weight room and what he does. His quickness and his speed shows. He has the smarts to get back there and align. I think he’s a tough, physical kid. So those are all things a safety has to be able to do. And as you know, we’re going to look at four or five kids in that spot.
“I think right now Musso seemed to do a good job this summer of what we were looking for — of improving himself mentally. That was encouraging from Day 1.”
Quarterback battle: Quarterbacks Curt Phillips and Joel Stave garnered most of the work with the first- and second-team units during pass skeleton drills. Junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy and redshirt freshman Bart Houston worked in as the third and fourth options.
McEvoy, whom Andersen has said is part of a three-way battle for the starting job with Phillips and Stave, looked shaky during his first practice. McEvoy does not have a textbook release point on his throws, as he appears to have a hitch and drops his arm down to pass. His pass for Alex Erickson was nearly intercepted by defensive back Nate Hammon during skeleton drills, and his next pass was broken up by cornerback Darius Hillary.
McEvoy also worked the last 15 minutes of practice with the younger players, while Phillips and Stave did stretching exercises.
“We’ll have to go back and sit down and evaluate it every single day,” Andersen said. “Breaking up at the end is a great opportunity for Tanner to get those extra reps with the young kids, which you all saw. I think there were some good things I’m sure out of all of them. I’m trying to watch alignment and assignment. Didn’t focus completely on the quarterbacks.
“We’ll go back and evaluate the film tonight and see where it sits. But this is going to be a process. Not one day is going to make a starter, but every day is going to be very important for those three as we continue through camp.”
Decal upgrade: Wisconsin’s newcomers took the practice field Monday without the traditional motion W on the side of their helmets. Instead, the sides were left blank with a single black stripe the only decoration.
Andersen said it was a tactic he has used over the years in past stops as a coach.
“They’ve got to earn that motion W on their helmet,” Andersen said. “It’s a big step for them. It’s kind of a — I wouldn’t call it a graduation — but you’ve done something pretty good.”
Every incoming player has been paired with a “Big Brother,” or older player in charge of mentoring someone. Andersen noted each big brother would be responsible for deciding when his little brother was worthy of the helmet decal.
“He needs to do something on the practice field that the veterans are going to look at him and say, ‘This guy is ready to take that next step,'” Andersen said. “I think it’s a good tradition. Those rookies want to get that stripe off and strap the W on there real quick. I promise you that much.”
Hill on scholarship: Andersen said walk-on senior Nick Hill was awarded a scholarship during a team meeting on Sunday.
Hill, an outside linebacker, took a redshirt season in 2009 and was named UW’s defensive scout team player of the week for the Northern Illinois game that season. He did not play in 2010 and 2011 while recovering from ACL injuries and made his Wisconsin debut against Nebraska last season. He also played against Illinois.
“Nick has put in all kinds of time,” Andersen said. “He’s almost graduated, and he’s gone through some ups and downs in this program. Those are the best days. When you have an opportunity to give a young man an opportunity to get a scholarship who’s worked so hard. He’s battled like crazy and done everything we’ve asked him to do. We had a spot so we took advantage of it. He’ll be on scholarship. Expect him to graduate in January and we’ll go from there.”
105 woes: Three players listed on the team’s initial roster are not on the 105-man fall camp roster: freshman offensive lineman Matt Miller, reserve defensive back Isaiah Williams and reserve cornerback Devin Gaulden. Gaulden underwent offseason knee surgery, and Andersen said is “a ways away” from returning. Andersen also said Miller was out “for an extended period of time.”
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Andersen said of Miller. “My philosophy on the 105 is if you’re not ready, 100 percent healthy to come into camp, then we’re going to bring in another young man to let him compete and then we’ll see how it goes. As camp goes on, as we all know, it’s a tough sport to hang in there with 105 kids consistently. Hopefully we’ll get him in and a couple other kids as we move forward. We’ll see. We expect him to be OK, but right now he’s just not quite ready yet.”
Borland does it all: Linebacker Chris Borland, it seems, can do a little bit of everything on the field. During Monday’s practice, he was spotted returning kicks. Borland is no stranger to playing other positions at Wisconsin. He once kicked three extra points against Hawaii and has also returned kicks.
Andersen hinted Borland could be used in other situations on the field this season, though it’s difficult to tell the coach’s level of seriousness.
“Chris wants to get back in those drills and be involved,” Andersen said. “He has fun with it and we’ll see. We might see him in some short yardage offense, too. I think that would be an interesting place to see him get the ball in his hands about the one yard line with his want-to and his will. It could get real interesting for a defense pretty fast.”