It had been a long time since Olive Sagapolu had done a backflip. Certainly prior to his arrival at Wisconsin in 2015. So when he was asked in the spring whether he could still do one, the senior nose tackle wasn’t positive he could pull off the maneuver that is usually reserved for gymnasts and cheerleaders, and not 340-pound football players.
“I’ll have to test the waters [this summer],” Sagapolu said in April. “I’ll go to the gym with some of my cheerleader friends and test my flips [to] see if I’ve still got it. I think I do.”
A little more than a month later, Sagapolu showed everyone he still had it. During a vacation in May, Sagapolu not only did the backflip, he did it with his feet sinking into the sand of a Hawaiian beach. The video of the feat went viral with ESPN, CBSSports, USA Today and others all reporting on it.
The flip didn’t necessarily surprise those associated with the program and certainly not those that were apart of the cheerleading team that Sagapolu was on in high school.
“Most people know…,” Sagapolu said of his athletic prowess. “But [the flip was] just a smidge of what I can do.”
While Sagapolu was referring to his mind-bending athleticism off the field, he believes fans have also only seen a smidge of what he can do on it. It’s what happens when you play an unheralded position that has seen a significant decrease in snaps as more and more teams move to spread offenses. It has usually meant Sagapolu standing on the sideline watching on third down.
Yeah, he’s played in some nickel situations, but the Badgers have had so many good defensive ends in recent years that they usually got the call when Wisconsin went to two down linemen. However, the graduation of Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih has left snaps available for him to grab.
Before he could, though, he felt he needed to lose weight. Listed at 346 pounds last season, Sagapolu was at 338 pounds in the spring and looking to drop some more.
“If I want to try to become an all-down guy, I’ve got to lose some weight,” he said. “[It] helps me move faster, helps me be faster with some of my moves. This spring, I feel a lot quicker.”
But it wasn’t just a quickness thing.
“[It’s] more about my cardio. Being heavier, I knew I was going to be a first- and second-down guy. I didn’t really mind it,” Sagapolu said. “[It was] important to lose weight just so I can play longer. If we have longer drives, being able to withstand the whole drive.”
That has become a lot more important in the wake of injuries to the only other experienced players returning — defensive ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk. Rand was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, while Loudermilk is expected back early in the season.
Biggest question: What does Wisconsin do at DE?
The losses of Rand for the season and Loudermilk for at least a little bit means a position that was already in flux with the talent departing from last year becomes an even bigger unknown for the Badgers entering fall camp.
“We’ve targeted some guys that we know are going to be in that rotation,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said at the end of spring and before the injuries. “Now, once again, it’s trying to accelerate that process with them and get them as much experience as possible. Some guys, it’s literally going to be until week 1 or week 6, they’re still going to be riding that process of getting better and learning the game.”
So what are Wisconsin’s options without Rand and Loudermilk? Well, as explained above, Sagapolu could see more time in nickel situations when they play two defensive linemen. But when they are in their base 3-4 scheme, the Badgers are going to be counting on the likes of redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal, redshirt sophomore Keldric Preston and juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe. It’s possible that a true freshman like Isaiah Mullens could also factor in, though Wisconsin isn’t counting on it. Potential position changes could add even more players into the mix when camp opens.
What they said:
“That’s been a big time strength of that defense. You take the depth that we’ve had — you’re going to have injuries up there, you’re going to get banged up. We’ve done such a great job of stopping the run and making teams one dimensional. They’re a huge part of that process with what we ask those guys to do.”
Leonhard on explaining how important the depth along the defensive line has been for Wisconsin in recent seasons.
Projected depth chart:
DE: Aaron Vopal (RS FR), Keldric Preston (RS SO)
NT: Olive Sagapolu (SR), Bryson Williams (FR)
DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS SO), David Pfaff (JR) OR Kraig Howe (JR)