This season, Wisconsin’s defense has been in a constant state of flux. With players getting injured and coming back from injury, and some going from hot to cold in a heartbeat, finding consistency has been difficult.
Senior safety Leo Musso, however, has been about as consistent as it gets. Except for his spin-a-rama fumble return against Michigan State, he hasn’t been a very flashy player, but he has been solid throughout the year.
This wasn’t always the case.
For three years, Leo Musso barely played. Michael Caputo locked down one safety spot, and depending on the year, either Tanner McEvoy or Peniel Jean manned the other. Given the success of those guys, it left little playing time available for the younger Musso.
However, he got on the field occasionally due to injury, including a rough game against eventual national champion Alabama. That limited exposure primed him for what was to come.
“It let me learn from mistakes and what is expected of a starter, and what it takes to be a starter in the Big Ten,” Musso said. “We had some great guys in front of me that taught me the way, and I just tried to take those learning tips and roll with it.”
Musso’s preparation to play in the spotlight of Camp Randall began while he was a high schooler, just north of Madison in Waunakee. While he only started three games in his first three years, he did start in a pair of high school state championship games, albeit at running back and not in the defensive backfield. His tutelage under legendary coach Pat Rice at Waunakee High School groomed him for what was to come.
“[Winning high school championships] prepares you more than anything by letting you know what it takes to win, what it takes to be successful in football.” Musso said. “That has helped me develop as a player here.”
Now that he has finally earned a starting role, Musso hasn’t been the center of attention like teammates Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt. But that’s okay.
He had an interception against Akron. He’s totaled two tackles for loss across three separate games. His lone pass breakup came against Michigan. He’s quietly amassed 47 tackles. Despite his under-the-radar effectiveness, Musso did have his moment in the sun.
Against Michigan State, Musso scooped up a fumble and spun his way 66 yards down the field for a touchdown, and became a brief internet sensation, thanks in part to a video made by Bleacher Report.
“I was happy that our defense scored, a defensive touchdown is always good … but I don’t think about it too much or dwell on it too much or try celebrating,” Musso said. “Bleacher Report had me spinning out the grandma and spinning out Shaq, so that was pretty funny.”
Furthering Musso’s relative invisibility on the field is his height. He’s listed at 5 feet-10 inches, but as with most athlete measurements, it’s a generous one. When compared to 6-foot-1-inch Caputo and 6-foot-6-inch McEvoy from last year, he is clearly the smallest safety as of late. He makes up for it with athleticism, but his teammates still do like to remind him of the facts.
“We’ll tease each other, we’re not the biggest safeties in the country. I’m only 5 [feet] 10 [inches], 5 [feet] 11 [inches], I’ll tease him, and he’ll call me ‘Tank’ when we go down in the box to make a tackle, or he goes down in the box to make a tackle I’ll call him ‘Tank,’” junior safety D’Cota Dixon said.
As a senior, Musso is not willing to waste any of his limited time left in Madison.
“One thing we always say is ‘win the day.’ That comes with winning the meeting and winning lifting and winning practice. I don’t want to take for granted any day I have left,” Musso said.
As the Badgers defense heads out onto the field for their final three games, Biegel or Derrick Tindal will be jumping around, trying to get the crowd pumped up. But Musso will be quietly alongside them, accumulating tackles, avoiding mistakes and calmly doing what’s made him one of the most reliable players on one of the nation’s toughest defenses.