MADISON | Three years is an eternity in college. The changes in people between the ages of 19 and 22 are as stark as at any other time in one’s life. And Wisconsin’s Leo Musso is no different as he enters his senior season.
Physically, he’s bigger and stronger. Though still listed at 5-foot-10, the Waunakee product has added about 10 pounds within the last year, leaving him at 195, and making his commitment to the weight room clear.
Appearance-wise, the buzz cut look he sported in one of his first team pictures has been replaced by long dark hair that flows out of the back of his helmet and bounces off his shoulder pads as he runs. And instead of being clean-shaven, Musso has a thin, scruffy beard that covers his face and neck.
Off the field, Musso has always been smart, but even there the 22-year-old went from being a freshman trying to find his way around campus to a veteran of balancing the rigors of football and school, graduating earlier this year with a degree in community and nonprofit leadership, and earning Academic All-Big Ten honors in three straight seasons.
And yet for all that’s changed in his life one thing has remained the same for Musso. Almost three years to the day since he first fielded questions about his chances of starting at safety for Wisconsin, Musso was standing in front of a reporter and being asked essentially the same question: Is this your year?
“I hope so,” Musso said with a grin. “This could be my last year of football, and that’s how I’m approaching it.”
In 2013, Musso was about a year removed from leaving high school as one of the best running backs the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. After running for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns as a prep, Musso came to Wisconsin and moved to defensive back. And when former coach Gary Andersen and then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda brought their 3-4 scheme to Madison, Musso ran with the first-team defense for a large portion of fall camp, but was eventually passed on the depth chart by Michael Caputo.
A year later, with Wisconsin looking to replace Dezmen Southward, Musso suffered an injury in fall camp and missed the first two games, as the Badgers started true freshman Lubern Figaro at the spot next to Caputo.
And then last season, despite getting the start in the opener against Alabama, Musso was passed over by Tanner McEvoy, who would end up leading Wisconsin in interceptions.
But now, with two safety spots open thanks to the departure of Caputo and McEvoy, Musso is in a solid position to grab one of the starting spots. He and junior D’Cota Dixon have been working with the first-team defense, while sophomore Arrington Farrar, true freshmen Patrick Johnson and Eric Burrell, along with junior Joe Ferguson have seen time with the second-team defense.
“I don’t think it’s set yet by any means,” Chryst said of the safety rotation. “If (the younger guys) keep pushing, I think we can create a little bit of competition, which helps the whole group.”
Still, it’s likely that the two starters, as well as their backups, will come from the set of five players that have seen the most action in fall camp.
“I think at safety and cornerback we’ve had a group of guys that have really separated (from the rest),” new secondary coach Jim Leonhard said after a recent practice. “(They’re) consistently doing what you ask. Whether it’s techniques, making plays on the ball (or) finishing plays.”
Leonhard has a significant task in front of him. Caputo was an inspiring figure the past few seasons, serving as Wisconsin’s captain as a senior and earned All-Big Ten honors in all three of his seasons starting for the Badgers. McEvoy, who played offense and defense during his time, was an All-Big Ten honorable mention pick last year.
“Obviously, we’re the guys that are replacing Mike Caputo and Tanner McEvoy, but we don’t really look at it like that,” Musso said. “I think more than anything, we’re just excited to show what we got. Kind of look at that as a chip on our shoulder. We’re confident in our abilities.”
The presence of Caputo and McEvoy made the rest of the defense confident and gave Aranda the flexibility to create havoc with his front seven and not worry about deep balls or blown coverages.
With a large contingent of that front seven back, the question remains whether new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will show as much confidence in Musso, Dixon and others when dialing up blitzes and other aspects of his scheme.
“I feel comfortable with the guys that we’ve got rolling with those first and second units,” Leonhard said. “We’re going to make teams beat us by making plays, not by making mistakes.”
Wisconsin’s All-Big Ten outside linebacker, Vince Biegel, is roommates with Musso, and has seen his transformation from the moment he stepped on campus in 2012 to now as they prepare for their final season in Madison. He’s got a significant level of confidence in Musso and the rest of the safety group that they’ll be able to hold up their end of the bargain.
“Nothing changes (from last year),” Biegel said when asked about his expectations for the revamped secondary. “It’s been fun to watch those guys progress in spring ball, and it’s been fun to watch them already progress in fall camp. We’ve still got a long way to go. But I’ve been assured that they’re going to cover them just long enough for me to get to the passer.”
With Wisconsin’s matchup with No. 5 LSU on Sept. 3 fast approaching, the coaching staff will need to make a decision soon on who will get the nod against the Tigers at Lambeau Field. Musso has no intention of making that decision easy on them, but he’s also prepared for whatever they say.
“At the end of the day, I hope I’m starting,” Musso said. “But if I’m not, then that’s what’s best for the team. And that’s all that matters.”