Dontez Sanders remembers clearly the first time he met Wisconsin's new defensive coordinator.
"He was talking with a lot of energy," said Sanders, a fourth-year junior. "At the same time, he just seemed like he wanted to come here and win… It wasn't like he was trying to sell us some dream or something. He was honest and I believed him."
Sanders, who won the starting will linebacker position during fall training camp, has benefited from Bret Bielema's arrival perhaps more acutely than any other player on Wisconsin's team.
"I think Coach ‘B' was the perfect coach for me because he's young," Sanders said. "He knows what I'm going through, he knows I'm not just a football player."
Bielema's ability to relate has been clear since he took over the Wisconsin defense last spring. The defense, a predominantly veteran bunch, has been fired up and ready to go.
"Our guys accept change very well and I think they've done a great job and they've been behind it 100 percent," said Brian Murphy, who coaches linebackers alongside Bielema.
If the Badgers are fortunate, their 2004 defense will be lively, prepared and driven to succeed—every snap, every play, every moment—a lot like the new coordinator.
"There is only one way to do things and that's a hundred miles an hour," Bielema said. "I don't care if I'm talking about washing my car, cleaning my apartment, whatever it is, I'm going to try to do it as fast as I can."
Make that as quick as possible and with a purpose. For Bielema, the Badgers' 34-year-old defensive coordinator, success is predicated on working with enthusiasm and precision, day-in and day-out, moment after moment.
Bielema's energy is infectious. Perhaps it is youthful exuberance, but the heart of the matter is that Bielema exudes energy. It is not that he is adverse to speaking softly. In fact, he prefers to live by the mantra, "praise loudly, criticize softly." He'll sprint downfield, jump, shout and holler praise until you swear the Energize Bunny has passed out.
"It's refreshing, is probably the best way to put it," defensive line coach John Palermo said.
"It means so much to our defense," sophomore strong safety Johnny White said. "When somebody makes a tackle, he's running down the field to congratulate them. He's a great coach, he's a great guy and he's so energetic."
When the need arises, and Bielema notices a mistake that needs to be addressed, loud and clear, his energy is used to prove a point.
Points such as simply getting to a pass is not good enough. Throughout Wisconsin's 21-practice fall training camp, defensive backs who managed to break up a pass, but could have by some stretch of human exertion intercepted it, had to do pushups.
Points such as every play requires attention to detail and exceptional effort. If those traits are not upheld, Bielema may make a 40-yard sprint downfield to express his discontent, as he did once this fall, after reserve linebacker Paul Joran did not finish a play properly.
"I wanted that player to take notice of it but hopefully what I also gathered was the attention of everybody else to realize that that type of experience is unacceptable," Bielema said. "The one thing that I think defensive players have got to realize is you can play your tail off for an entire game, somebody let's up on one play or doesn't execute their assignment on one snap, that may lose that ball game but in a bigger picture it may lose you a lot more. There's a lot of things that go into a football game, but I've been involved in seasons where you look back at it and there are two plays and if you'd played them better, maybe you are sitting in a different result at the end of the year. It gets that easy to pinpoint down to a season."
More often, however, Bielema's energy is devoted to praise.
"I remember the first time I get, like a (pass breakup), he ran up on the field, gave me five," Sanders said. "I said, ‘yeah, this might be a good thing for the team.'"
"He pushes you and you know he's going to emphasize the enthusiasm," senior defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne said. "Make a play, celebrate. If we make big plays, he comes down and pats us on the back."
"I think players like to and kind of respond to enthusiasm," Bielema said. "I think that they've got to have their own personality but anytime that they can see how things can get done a little bit faster and a little bit better, they can see the reaction."
Yelling and shouting are part of Bielema's repertoire. The point, though, is not to make a lot of noise and prove that he can be a touch animated.
"A lot of times we talk through things…I want them to have enough knowledge, that when I'm trying to emphasize something I'm not just hollering to holler. It is just because it is a point of emphasis," he said.
"He never tries to embarrass anyone," Sanders sad. "He screams at you and stuff but it's never degrading. He wants you to learn and not make the same mistake every day."
Energy is not Bielema's only calling card.
"I think he's pretty organized too," Palermo said. "I think he does a good job of dotting i's and crossing t's and making sure that we go over things more than once."
Perhaps that is why Bielema's favorite teaching opportunities do not come on the field, but in the film room.
"In my room there's sam, mike and will (linebackers)," Bielema said. "Mark Zalewski's my No. 1 sam. When he's on film….As soon as I say the word, ‘Mark', I lose the focus of everybody else in that room because I'm talking only to him. So what I'll try to do is I'll say, ‘look at the sam here. The sam's got to close, keep inside-out leverage' so that every sam in that room, his ears should light up and he should be focused on what I'm talking about. Now, if I want to choose a point of emphasis, I want to correct him because he's made his mistake five times, then I'll use his name. It's a teaching tool."
"He tells you to do this and why you need to do it," White said. "When you get here you have to learn so many things. And if you learn just what they are and not why you need to do them then if a formation you don't know comes out, you won't know where to go because you don't know why you need to be in that certain spot."
On the field, the teaching moments come fast and furious, with an excitement and enthusiasm that has rubbed off on the players he is coaching. The defense spent much of its August whooping and hollering right along with their new coach, thoroughly enjoying every play they made during practice.
But will that exuberance translate to game days this fall?
"I sure hope so," Palermo said. "We'll find out Saturday."
Fresh burst of energy
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