CHICAGO - There was no magical moment that senior safety Michael Caputo suddenly got it. He referred to his development as “a flickering light that got brighter and brighter” over the course of his first four years at Wisconsin.
He refers to his first start, however, as awful.
“I am ashamed of myself that I didn’t know what was going on,” Caputo said Thursday during the annual Big Ten media days at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. “I look back on it, and I watch the film on it sometimes, and I’m like ‘C’mon man, you’ve got to know that stuff.’”
Getting a 2012 start as a redshirt freshman against Illinois because of injuries, Caputo was so outside his element and comfort zone that the coaching staff pulled him and put in Shelton Johnson, broken arm and all, ahead of schedule to restore some order.
It was a humbling, but teaching, moment and a starting point to get better.
“(Shelton) was a big role model and had a large effect on how I play today,” said Caputo. “He said (after that game) I can’t worry about it, you can only focus on what’s to come or what you can do better. I took those words to heart and how I shaped my work ethic.”
Putting emphasis on studying schemes and learning the game of football, Caputo has started 26 of the last 27 games at safety and enjoyed a banner 2014 season in which he finished with 106 tackles, six tackles for loss and six pass deflections.
“I feel like I seized the opportunity and prepared myself the right way,” said Caputo. “Just because I got the spot I didn’t stop working. First was the job, then I got to be the best I can be. That’s just how I work ethic goes.”
Along with junior tailback Corey Clement, Caputo was named one of the six “Players to Watch” from the Big Ten West Division and the only safety on the 11 player list, a distinction that didn’t come as a surprise from first-year head coach Paul Chryst.
Sitting down and meeting with every player on the roster after the spring to get to know individuals better, Chryst asked each player to list the top three leaders on the team, the top three people they respected the most on the team and the three best players on the team. Caputo’s name appeared in every category from every player.
“That obviously told me a lot about Mike,” said Chryst. “It was also a relief that it confirmed what I thought and our coaches thought. Any time that you're on the same page with your team, it makes you feel good. That was an easy one to see, but you're glad. And it confirmed that our team felt and saw the same way.”
Caputo said there’s no major concern with Wisconsin’s defense entering the season. Not only do the Badgers return six starters, Wisconsin has three defensive backs that have two years of starting experience and a 6-6 athletic safety in McEvoy ready to make an impact.
“He’s athletic, he knows football (and) we communicate well,” Caputo said of McEvoy, “so it actually makes me a better player to have a guy like that back there with me.”
Kafentzis Not the Right Fit
Unable to visit Sandy (UT) Jordan quarterback Austin Kafentzis in person and evaluate him during the recruiting process, Chryst said he tried to be open and honest with the former Badgers quarterback about where he fit into his offense.
“We tried to have some real frank conversations,” said Chryst. “He asked me do you think I could play quarterback? I said I’d never tell you you couldn’t play quarterback. I would tell you I would not recruit you to play quarterback because I think you fit in with a different type of scheme. As we went through it, I wanted to make sure I was honest in my evaluation.”
Kafentzis re-committed to Wisconsin in December after speaking with Chryst and enrolled early for spring practices. During spring, Kafentzis quickly became buried on the depth chart when another true freshman - Alex Hornibrook – surpassed him and took a large portion of the reps in scrimmages and team drills.
Chryst said he talked with Kafentzis throughout his time on campus to give him honest feedback of the direction things were going, conversations he wanted to have sooner rather than later so decisions could be made without much penalty.
“If it wasn’t a great fit, he didn’t come early, redshirt and have to use a transfer year if he wanted to go somewhere else,” said Chryst. “That’s not fair to him in that case.”
Kafentzis is currently enrolled at Nevada.
Ready to Learn
Picked by league media members to repeat as Big Ten West Division champions, Wisconsin will open the season Sept.5 against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, with a youthful roster. Of the 114 players on its current roster, Wisconsin has 55 freshmen – including 35 true freshmen – and 21 sophomores, juxtaposed to relying on only 20 seniors and 18 juniors.
“We’re going to learn a lot,” said Chryst, referring to the matchup with No.3 Alabama. “But I don’t think there’s ever been a week one where we didn’t learn a lot about our guys. You always learn, but certainly we’re going to learn a lot about who we are. We’re going to learn every game.”
While there’s youth, there’s also a good deal of experience with 26 players returning who started at least one game for Wisconsin in 2014. Combine that with posting just the fifth 11-win season in school history, Wisconsin enters the season ranked 18th in the preseason coaches poll.
“(Picked first) doesn’t add any pressure,” said Chryst. “Our expectations are high. The player’s expectations are high. Mine as a coach are high. The media, whatever they decide, doesn’t trump how we feel internally.”
Extra Points: Senior cornerback Devin Gaulden has graduated and will play his last season of college football closer to home at Wake Forest. Gaulden is from Miramar, Fla … Highly-touted offensive lineman Jaden Gault will not play this season, according to Chryst. Gault, from Monona Grove, Wis., is recovering from depression and has not participated in football-related activities since committing … Chryst said center Dan Voltz (ankle), T.J. Watt (legs) and (shoulder surgery) will be brought along slowly in camp … Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said there is no pending announcement for a new apparel deal. Wisconsin deal with Adidas ends after the 2015-16 academic season.