MADISON – Attending a class or attending a spring practice isn’t a debate most players in a position battle would take long to make. Senior Leo Musso isn’t most players. That’s why the three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree found a way to do both.
Needed to take a specific class in the spring in order to graduate that wasn’t offered in fall, and as luck would have it the class directly conflicted with all of Wisconsin’s midweek practices, Musso knew he would be missing a big chunk of work.
So in order to try to accomplish as much as possible, Musso would race back to the stadium to try to go through the last part of team drills, after which he’d stay after and go through individual drills on his own time.
“I made sure I came back here and do the extra meetings with coach,” Musso said, who managed to attend all the meetings and weekend practices. “I’m one of those guys where I’ll tell you I always have stuff to improve, but being comfortable, seeing different things from the offense and knowing which parts of the defense fit where, it’s more comfortable.”
The only senior in the safety room, the work Musso has done earned him the starting free safety spot when Wisconsin opens against No.5 LSU at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field Saturday, his second straight opening day start. Unlike last year, Musso hopes there’s more starts after that.
Musso made four tackles against Alabama, but struggled in pass coverage and slowing down tailback Derrick Henry.
“It was one of those things where it was the first game, I wouldn’t call it first game jitters, but it was an experience,” he recalled. “Playing against the eventual national champions and the Heisman Trophy winner is one of those things where you don’t take anything away from your technique, play the exact same way you do in practice and don’t switch anything up.”
He lived by that motto, defending a career-best three passes and recording two interceptions against Miami (OH) a week later. It also showed that Musso can make plays, even though he’s one of the shortest players on the team.
Of the 115 players listed on Wisconsin’s roster, Musso’s 5-10 height is tied for the sixth shortest, not to mention eight inches shorter than the player he’s replacing in Tanner McEvoy, who led the team with five interceptions last season.
But while his height is not prototypical for a safety, the same could be said for Jim Leonhard, his position coach who managed to be an All-American and a 10-year N.F.L. veteran despite being listed at 5-8. That’s part of the reason why height doesn’t come up in conversations between the two.
And neither do excuses. Height has never been an issue for Musso, who was part of three consecutive Division 2 state championship teams at Waunakee (2009-11) and rushed for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns (scored 93 total TDs). Like any defensive back, he feels he can stick with anybody.
“That’s the mentality as a DB that you want to have, that whether you’re matched up with the faster, bigger, stronger guy on the field that he’s not going to catch it,” Musso said. “I would hope any DB would tell you that. From my experience, there are guys that I’ve felt that I’ve covered.”
One of the main question marks entering the season was how Wisconsin would be able to replicate the chemistry developed by McEvoy and Michael Caputo, a pair of seniors who rarely left the field in Big Ten and postseason play. While they weren’t reps on Saturdays, Musso and redshirt sophomore D’Cota Dixon worked together throughout 2015 with the second-team defense.
That proved to be vital that with Musso missing practice time because of his class schedule and Dixon on the shelf with a groin injury that the two could still hit the ground running in fall camp.
“We’re very similar in terms of our values on the field and off,” Musso said of Dixon, who was named the starting strong safety. “During that move out period he’s staying at my house and I’m helping him move at night. I treat him like a brother, and that’s kind of the whole DB room, a band of brothers. We had that experience last year working together and just know how each other play, how to communicate with one another. From that standpoint, it’s been very comforting because we know how to mesh.”
A year after being humbled against Alabama, Musso has another chance to prove himself. Not only does LSU boast two dynamic receiving options in 6-4 junior Malachi Dupre and 6-2 senior Travin Dural, Tigers junior tailback Leonard Fournette – all 235 pounds of him – is an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
“It truly is now or never,” Musso said. “It’s one of those things where you’re going into (the season) with the mentality that you have to let it all hang. From a leadership standpoint with how we attacked winter weights, spring ball, summer lifting to every practice we go through, you’ve got to come out … with a little extra motivator.”