Wisconsin's fall camp was not the first time Mike Newkirk had been asked to try middle linebacker.
The same scenario unfolded prior to his junior year at Ladysmith (Wis.) High School. Newkirk had started at defensive end the previous season, but was moved to linebacker for a preseason scrimmage.
"It felt like I was more…watching the game instead of playing it," he said. "I was trying to read my keys and I was all worried about that instead of just getting the ball and being a football player."
He ended up playing defensive tackle that year and played end again as a prep senior.
Now a 6-foot-3, 235-pound college freshman, Newkirk had similar distressed feelings earlier this month. Despite being recruited as a defensive end, he began his Badger career as a mike linebacker when training camp opened.
"They didn't have a lot of depth at linebacker and they were just looking for people who maybe could step in and play," he said. "I was willing to give it a shot and give it the best that I have."
Known for his effort, Newkirk put a ton of energy into being a good mike linebacker. He played with the second team for most of camp, but was never comfortable at the position. Normally an exceptionally aggressive player, Newkirk was slowed by indecision and his considerable desire to succeed.
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, acknowledged as much two days before Newkirk made the switch back to defensive end.
"He's so pride-oriented. If he doesn't do something right, he really takes it to heart and I think that's impeded his progress," Bielema said.
Newkirk was prepared for an adjustment from high school football, where he was a dominating, all-state performer at defensive end and fullback, to the college game.
"I knew there was going to be guys that were bigger and stronger and faster than I was. There were going to be upperclassmen who knew the system," he said. "But I thought the one thing I could always count on was my effort and my physicalness. At linebacker I wasn't even able to use that as one of my strengths. I didn't even know where I was going. It was real frustrating."
Now, Newkirk is back home at defensive end. He had no problem adjusting to a new position coach when fall camp was nearly complete. Defensive line coach John Palermo had previously instructed Newkirk during Badger football camps.
"He knew me more as a player, so I felt real comfortable," Newkirk said. "As far as just playing the position goes, it's easy to catch on to because I was there before…With me being a wrestler (Newkirk was a state champion heavyweight) I think that more fits my style. Just, you know, the line and being hand-to-hand, one-on-one, go right away."
Since switching back to defensive end, Newkirk has also been moved to the scout team and is expected to redshirt this season. He was also taken off the depth on three special teams' squads. Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said Friday that he would not burn a year of Newkirk's eligibility just for special teams.
"I expect for me to play the role that the coaches see (for) me," Newkirk said. "Whether that be on the field on special teams, backup at an end…or if that just means giving everything I've got on the scout team and making the No. 1 offense the best they can be for that upcoming Saturday."
"One thing I love about ‘Newk', he is a football player," Bielema said. "He is going to be a good football player because he likes the game, he knows how to work and he's tough."
Tough enough to do extra conditioning work, of his own design, after practice. The Badgers often ended practice with wind sprints across the width of the field. Often, the winner of Wisconsin's competitive situation at practice would have to do six sprints. The losing side, meanwhile, would do 10.
Whenever practice did not culminate with sprints, Newkirk jogged to the base of a hill above the upper practice field at the Bishop O'Connor Center and ran it 10 times.
"I always run it as if we lost," he said. "My mindset on that is that if you train like you lost, then you are training not to lose. Because if you lose, you have to train harder so you don't fail. So you know you are getting that extra work in…that's what makes you that much better."
Newkirk happy to return to defensive end
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