Ask Wisconsin's coaching staff about redshirt freshman strong safety Joe Stellmacher, and they inevitably will mention that he is a coach's son. Ask Stellmacher about his experience playing for his father, and his face lights up.
"It was awesome," interjected Stellmacher, before the question was half-spoken. Then, adding, "I've been around football my whole life. I mean, I was a water boy when I was six-, seven-years old. I used to watch tapes with my dad—even when I didn't play—I would sit down and watch tapes with him. And all through high school we would sit down and watch tapes."
Joe Stellmacher was a three-year starter at quarterback and free safety at Berlin High School (Berlin, Wis.), where his father, Steve Stellmacher, is entering his 27th year as the head football coach.
"It was a real pleasure to coach Joe," said Steve Stellmacher, who is also Berlin's athletics director. "He was always the star of the team so to speak, but you never felt that way coaching him."
"Just playing for him was a once-in-a lifetime experience," Joe Stellmacher said. "Some people would say, ‘Did you like playing for your dad? Was he hard on you?' It wasn't that case at all. It was just a pleasure to play for him."
In addition to football, Stellmacher also excelled in basketball and baseball at Berlin—twice earning first-team all-conference commendation in all three sports. He also ran track his senior year. Stellmacher, though, did not receive much attention from college recruiters and is a walk-on with the Badgers.
Following his redshirt season, Stellmacher did well in spring practices, receiving some work with the regular defense, but still entered fall workouts as the No. 3 strong safety. Stellmacher, though, quickly served notice that he belonged on the field, at one point intercepting four passes in a two-day stretch.
He quickly rose through the depth chart, landing the nickel back role on the first-team nickel defense and becoming the top reserve at strong safety by the second week of practice.
Stellmacher played in the nickel during Wisconsin's first two games this season, recording eight tackles and competing well enough to earn a start at strong safety against UNLV.
"I didn't find out I was going to start until Friday, right before our Friday walkthrough," Stellmacher said. "It was kind of a shock to find out so late but I just had to get myself ready to go.
"First collegiate start—Camp Randall—yeah, I was a little nervous. But once you put the pads on, once I got that first play, all the jitters were gone."
Stellmacher recorded five tackles, two for loss, against the Rebels and was named the Badgers co-defensive player of the week, along with defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne.
"I thought if he was given a chance he would prove himself," Steve Stellmacher said. "I didn't think he would get here so soon. All I knew was that he needed a chance and I knew he would do it."
Senior Ryan Aiello, who started 12 games at free safety last year and the first two at strong safety this season, is listed No. 1 on the depth chart at strong safety for Saturday's game against North Carolina. The competition at the position is expected to continue throughout the season, with each player receiving ample playing time.
"Whoever grades out the best will play," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "We will just keep things competitive—we don't want anybody to think that they have a spot. They have to prove it each week."
Stellmacher will also continue to play in the nickel. Against UNLV he shifted from the nickel back position to Wisconsin's ‘adjustment backer', a position normally played by an outside linebacker, giving the Badgers six defensive backs.
"Joe is the type of guy that you love to have," Lee said. "He is one of those great guys that will be a solid player, that walked on here that can help us and he will contribute to the team."
In 27 years at Berlin, Steve Stellmacher has coached only one other Division I player, Gerry Bartol, an all-state defensive end in the early 1990s who earned a scholarship to play at Northern Illinois.
Another Stellmacher, though, could very likely become the third. Joe's younger brother, Brad, a senior at Berlin who also starts on each side of the ball in addition to excelling as a kicker and punter, is receiving interest from Wisconsin.
"The Badgers have been in contact with Brad along with some other schools," said Steve Stellmacher, though no scholarship offers have yet come Brad's way.