Sagapolu taking on leadership role on inexperienced defensive line

Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu was listed out for the season before Wisconsin's game before No. 21 Penn State. Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook is questionable after being in concussion protocol.

Image By: McKenzie Halling

For senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, breaks during practice do not mean he stops working. Instead, in between drills and after practice, Sagapolu is constantly working to be a mentor for UW’s younger defensive linemen.

Sagapolu is the only returning member of the Badgers’ 2017 starting defensive line, which saw starting defensive ends Conor Sheehy and Alec James graduate. Sheehy and James combined for 107 games played, 59 career starts and both received second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017. Sagapolu, who had previously looked up to, and learned from Sheehy and James, knows it’s his turn to do the same this upcoming season.

“Conor and Alec, those were always the guys who were the leaders of the group,” Sagapolu said. “They’ve been here for three, four and five years even. Now it’s my turn to step up and have my voice be heard from everybody and make sure everyone is on the same page since I’m the only guy who came back from last year.”

The two Badgers looking to replace Sheehy and James are redshirt sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk and junior Garrett Rand. Sagapolu can constantly be seen taking Loudermilk and Rand to the side during and after spring practice — going through different pass-rush techniques and making sure they know where they should be on every play. After last Thursday’s practice, Sagapolu went even further, as he worked with the rest of the defensive linemen for an extra 30 minutes with each member receiving a personal lesson.

“I’m just trying to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Sagapolu said. “I may be a nose [tackle] but I still know some things that go on at [defensive end]. I try to make sure the young guys know what’s going on. I make sure they know what’s going on, what blocks are going to come, how to play those certain blocks and stuff like that.”

Rand, who has spent the last two seasons as a reserve nose tackle, is making the switch to defensive end and is projected to start next to Sagapolu — a player he credits for much of his success.

“Since I came in as a freshman he’s taken me under his wing because I was a nose guard and he was a nose guard,” Rand said. “He kind of took me under his wing and helped me out and it helped my game out a lot.”

Loudermilk, who is projected to start on the other side of Sagapolu similarly shares his appreciation for Sagapolu’s leadership.

“He’s been extremely helpful,” Loudermilk said. “He’s like a second coach for me. He’ll see little things as we’re watching film and he’ll tell me what might help a little more. I stay after [practice] with him - he always has pass rush stuff to work on. He’s pretty much like a second D-line coach for me right now.”

The Badgers’ defense that was ranked second nationally in total defense lost seven starters from a season ago meaning that Sagapolu’s leadership is vital for the young players who are looking to fill in those holes.

“We’re young, we’re losing some big-time guys but guys will step up,” Sagapolu said. “Just because we have a lot of young guys, it doesn’t matter. They know what’s going on.”

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