MADISON, Wis. — When a weekend text message from Olive Sagapolu lights up the cell phones of Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, they usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect. It has become something of a regular occurrence for Sagapolu to ask his teammates to join him for extra practice reps at Wisconsin’s football practice facility.
But the reps don’t involve using a football or tackling dummies. Instead, all they need are their hands.
The three Badgers defensive linemen take turns rotating during a two-person drill. One player lifts his hands up from his side while the other attempts to block the hands and maneuver around them. The sequence lasts less than a few seconds and resembles a boxer quickly extending each arm for a punching bag.
In the moments after a football is snapped on Saturdays this fall, it will be up to Wisconsin’s defensive linemen to gain any advantage possible to break down a play and create openings for the team’s linebackers. Five months before those games take place, Loudermilk, Rand and Sagapolu often can be found at the McClain Center, honing tricks that fans rarely see.
“It’s the little details that count,” Rand said. “Everyone says little details, but it really matters. You can’t just muscle everyone because there’s going to be someone bigger and stronger than you. It really comes down to your technique and knowing what he’s going to do, knowing what you’re going to do. Little details are everything.”
It wasn’t a surprise, then, to see the three of them standing on the sideline near midfield following spring practice Thursday and rotating through their customary drill. Sagapolu, the leader of the unit, has appeared in 36 career games with 19 starts at nose guard and will have started parts of all four seasons in which he has played. Loudermilk and Rand, meanwhile, are soaking up what they can from Sagapolu as they take on new roles as Wisconsin’s starting defensive ends.
“If Olive’s over there working on it, which he usually is, we’ll go over there,” Loudermilk said. “He gives us a whole bunch of stuff. He’s learned a lot since he’s been here. All the pass-rush stuff, I kind of turn to him on how to use my hands.”
Wisconsin’s defense will go only as far as the Badgers pass rush can take it, which makes the play of Loudermilk and Rand particularly important. Throw in the fact that the Badgers lost senior defensive ends Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih from the team from last season, and there are massive voids to fill. That trio combined to appear in 156 games with 90 starts during their Wisconsin careers. They collectively recorded 290 tackles, 37 tackles for loss and 21 sacks.
Rand and Loudermilk say they are using the tools they acquired from watching those three players, as well as Sagapolu, to become the most effective defensive ends they can be this season.
“I learned a lot from them, especially in the film room,” Loudermilk said. “Just being able to watch what they’ve done, watching their past film or last year watching them in practice and coaches saying this is what it’s supposed to look like. They know exactly what they’re doing, know their steps, know their roles. It’s helped me a lot being able to see exactly what I was supposed to do and what it was supposed to look like.”
Loudermilk appeared in 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman and recorded 11 tackles with 1 1/2 sacks. His biggest advantage at the line of scrimmage is his massive frame. Loudermilk stands 6-foot-7 and has increased his playing weight to 297 pounds.
“I can be almost as heavy as some of the tackles out there,” he said. “So just being able to know that I can go against him, he won’t overpower me, outweigh me because I’m just as big as him, being able to hold my ground with how big I am, I feel like it helps a lot.”
The 6-2, 278-pound Rand has played in 28 games with 18 tackles in his first two seasons with the program. He has spent much of his career as a reserve nose guard behind Sagapolu. But Wisconsin defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield told him this offseason that he would be moving to defensive end. The move helped free up the backup nose guard role for incoming freshman Bryson Williams and allowed Rand to see the field in a starting capacity.
Teammates have expressed faith in Wisconsin’s two new projected starters at defensive end.
“I just think learning from those guys who just left and knowing what our defense needs for them to do for us to be successful is huge,” Wisconsin inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Olive being the anchor on that unit, having guys who have gotten some time with Isaiahh and Garrett Rand, I’m not worried about them at all. I know Coach Nokes will make sure everyone is doing his job and also hold us accountable to making sure they’re in their spots as well. They’ve been great so far this spring.”
Wisconsin’s defensive linemen are optimistic there won’t be any drop-off in production. The bigger question is whether the Badgers can develop enough depth at the defensive end spots to ensure success in case of injury. Aaron Vopal, a redshirt freshman, has performed well at end in spring practice, but the coaches need to have faith in more players.
Rand said he has been adjusting to the different technique required of a defensive end compared to a nose guard, which includes having a more attacking mindset off the snap. Like Loudermilk, he is trying to carry what he has learned from his predecessors.
“Alec, Sheehy and Chikwe, they were never like the talkative group,” Rand said. “They were super humble, and I like that style. I think that rubbed off on all of us. We don’t really like to brag about anything. Just being humble and working hard, giving it 100 percent each play, that’s the big thing they tried to teach us.”