Joe Stellmacher has been in this position before. No. 3 strong safety on the fall camp depth chart. Odds stacked against him, working for an opportunity.
Last season, however, he was not coming off a broken right tibia and a broken right ankle.
Stellmacher was one of the pleasant surprises of the Badgers' 2003 preseason camp. His understanding of the game, intensity and athleticism endured him to the coaching staff. That, and he just made plays, including one practice in which he intercepted three passes during scrimmage work.
Soon after, Stellmacher became the first-team nickel back. With the exception of one start, it was a role he maintained until suffering the injuries in the fifth game of the season against Illinois, partially the result of a collision with Alex Lewis.
"Alex did come flying into me. But he did carry me up the airplane on the way home," Stellmacher said with a laugh. "That made up for it. I forgive him."
Stellmacher was held out of spring workouts but began lifting and running with the team when summer conditioning began in June.
"In the beginning of summer drills it felt sore after I'd work out but toward the end of the summer after working out it felt good," Stellmacher said.
Stellmacher ran a self-reported 4.6 40-yard dash last season. The Badgers have not yet timed him, but he believes his speed is right where it was before the injuries.
"I'm confidant I'm just as fast," he said. "You want to time me? Time me."
Wisconsin is feeling good now that Stellmacher is back. Not that the team is without options at strong safety. Stellmacher once again finds himself at No. 3 on the depth chart, this time behind Robert Brooks and Johnny White.
"Rob and Johnny White are another two very good players so it will be good competition," Stellmacher said. " It will be good for all of us."
Stellmacher's return gives the Badgers exceptional depth at the position and another player who can compete for a spot in the nickel defense.
"When he first came back we tried to ease him into it," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "The more we tried to ease him into it the more he fought to get more playing time. That's good to see. It shows that he wants to play. Now, he feels good. He's moving around well and he's a guy that we are going to get on the field."
Stellmacher still could win the starting strong safety job. He proved that last season, when he hurdled Ryan Aiello and started against UNLV. He recorded five tackles that game and 16 for the season before the injuries, which required surgery and months of rehab to mend.
"It was devastating at the time, just to get to where I was and then to have it all come crashing down," Stellmacher said.
Teammates, family and friends remained upbeat and were very supportive, Stellmacher said.
"That helped a lot with the whole recovery process," he said. "And myself too. I just looked at it in a positive state of mind and told myself, ‘I'm going to get through this and be ready to go for the season,' which I think I am."
Stellmacher's health a boon for Badgers
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