MADISON - Getting associated to one of the greatest defensive backs in program history isn’t viewed as a daunting task for Wisconsin junior safety Leo Musso. It’s just another added source of motivation.
“If my career turns out anything like his,” said Musso, “I’ll be in good shape.”
The comparisons between Jim Leonhard and Musso are natural. They both have played safety at Wisconsin, both come from small towns (Leonhard from Ladysmith, Musso from Waunakee) and both haven’t been blessed with height (Leonhard is listed at 5-8, Musso is generously listed at 5-10).
Knowing all those factors and it’s not a surprise that Musso views Leonhard as an idol, especially since the latter turned a walk-on opportunity into multiple All-Big Ten honors, 21 career interceptions and a 10-year NFL career.
Musso isn’t at Leonhard’s level yet, not with the series of unfortunate injuries he’s run into since arriving on campus. Last season alone he rolled his ankle in the spring and popped his hamstring in fall. A chance to wipe the slate clean under a new coaching staff this spring, Musso battled through tendon issues and popped his calf.
“It was a string of bad luck, but I’m healthy now,” said Musso, who had 25 career games, 26 tackles and one interception to his name. “I’m grateful to be back out there.”
Over the three weeks of fall camp, Musso practiced and made plays the way he thought he could. Always striving to put himself around the football, Musso unofficially led the team in interceptions. Naturally he credits “the smart players around him,” but is easy to see that he took advantage of the opportunity to work with the first-team defense when senior Tanner McEvoy worked on offense.
“When he gets his turns he’s locked in,” said Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst. “He puts himself in good positions so if there is an error or something happens he can capitalize on it.”
Musso is used to battling against the odds. Not only has he overcome height, size and health, Musso won the battle against pure scholarship numbers. With only 11 available scholarships in 2012, Wisconsin and then-coach Bret Bielema was extremely selective in the recruiting process, meaning Musso and his 2,382 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns wasn’t a priority.
The offer finally came in late January, right before Musso was heading to Pittsburgh on an official visit after Chryst, who had just taken the Panthers job, started to recruit him.
“It’s pretty indescribable,” said Musso. “I’m so grateful that I get to play for my home state and represent Wisconsin. I’m trying to do the right thing and be a good hard-working person. One thing they always tell us is to make sure you are having a good attitude and be dependable. That’s a Wisconsin guy. I’m just trying to carry on the legacy of the guys that were before me.”
He never got a real chance to impress Bielema, who left after Musso’s redshirt season, but Gary Andersen became an instant fan of Musso, putting him on UW’s special teams units and giving him his only career start at Ohio State his redshirt freshman season.
Musso said he bonded with the previous two coaching staff but feels a strong attachment to the group coaching him now.
“This staff is what I’m about – Wisconsin, blue collar, hard work and grinding,” said Musso. “That’s what I love to do and the way I was taught football. When I was getting recruited by these guys, that’s one of the things that drew me to them. I loved that they were Wisconsin guys and glad they all came back.”
The initial depth chart for No.20 Wisconsin’s season opener against No.3 Alabama is expected to be released tomorrow. Musso isn’t sure where he’ll be listed – likely the backup to either senior Michael Caputo or McEvoy – but knows he has put himself in position in camp to make a mark on the field.
“It’s just one of those things where you can control what you can control,” said Musso. “That’s been my motto throughout my entire life playing football. I figure I work hard and the rest can take care of itself.”