Young fullbacks thrust into spotlight

Wisconsin lists Pressley, Rentmeester as co-starters to replace injured Bernstein

MADISON — Bill Rentmeester speaks somewhat softly, calmly. He is the homegrown Wisconsin boy, playing in front of his old friends on Saturdays. Suddenly he finds himself thrust into the limelight. He is pointed at jokingly by captain and oftentimes mentor Matt Bernstein during a multi-party interview after practice. Rentmeester comes off as eager and excited, but not loud.

"It's just a lot of fun to play in front of your home state, in front of a lot of people you know," said the redshirt freshman Rentmeester.

Chris Pressley, the New Jersey import, speaks as if the cameras have always been rolling. In fact, following Monday practice they were. You would not know it though. He answers questions not with overt cockiness, but with detailed, confident responses. Like the fullback he replaces, Pressley makes reporters laugh once or twice. He seems to have no qualms with laying out his game plan, point blank.

Chris Pressley runs the ball
versus Central Florida in
the Badgers' 2004 season opener.
Pressley has since switched from
tailback to fullback and from
No. 25 to No. 44. (UW Athletics)

"I plan on setting a precedent the first couple plays," said the sophomore Pressley. He was confidently alluding to the Northwestern defense, which he said did not really have a fullback heading straight at them in their last game. "I'm going to let you know I'm coming down hard every time."

None of this makes Rentmeester the understated Marvin Harrison of Big Ten athletes, the same way Pressley is far from a Wisconsin version of Chad Johnson. However, the two former fullback understudies will need all the varying personality and talent they can muster to replace Bernstein, who will be out for an unknown period of time with a sports hernia.

The duration of absence for Bernstein is as murky as the general injury itself. Donovan McNabb battled through it this weekend to lead his team to victory. Vikings center Matt Birk, on the other hand, needed three surgeries and extended time out, while compensating with other body parts, which contributed to a current season-ending hip injury.

That means the Badgers need Pressley and Rentmeester to be prepared for the long haul. Against Indiana, the 6-foot-1, 256-pound Pressley got the nod and played through much of the third quarter until an ankle injury forced Rentmeester into the role. This week, with that injury improving but still looming, the coaching staff listed the two fullbacks as co-starters. The shared role will likely ease them into the punishment an entire game takes on the body of a bruising blocker.

"I think it was a typical first game performance," junior tailback Brian Calhoun said. "They had things to work on but they actually played pretty well for the time they were in."

The East Coast recruit

Pressley lived up to his reputation on certain plays as the strongest player on the team. His 665-pound squat set a UW fullback record, and he boasts a 435-pound bench press. That type of strength completely floored Hoosier defenders on more than one occasion. For instance, Calhoun said Pressley blocked the strong-side linebacker perfectly on the Badgers' one-yard rushing touchdown in the first half.

At the same time, Pressley will need to work on consistently focusing that weight at the point of attack. Strength does not always equate to balance, positioning and direction. Pressley knows this and admits he needs to further his development in that capacity.

"This week I'm definitely going to watch film a lot more to see how their linebackers and their lineman are coming and leveraging blocks so I can be able to be on that point of contact," Pressley said.

"It's hard because you want to go blast somebody but at the same time you've got to know how to settle down and be under control."

Blasting people is what Pressley seems born to do on the field. Although he drew comparison to a back in the mold of a Ron Dayne and ran for 3,650 yards in high school, Pressley knows he fits the fullback mold. He was recruited as a tailback at schools like Temple and North Carolina — both of whom the Badgers defeated already this season — as well as Syracuse and Boston College. Despite that, he chose Wisconsin, which did also recruit him as a tailback but obviously implied stiff competition at the position it has become so renowned for.

"What gets me going is the (isolation) block," Pressley said in response to his favorite part of the fullback role. "I like to see someone coming down hard when they call ‘Iso' because I know I'm just going to go in there and try to knock them out."

"I like collisions a lot," he smiles when asked.

The local boy

On his first snap against Indiana, Rentmeester led the way for Calhoun and created a hole to the left. The running back sprinted through it, shooting to the left side of the field in what looked like a potential long touchdown run before an IU defender barely wrapped up his ankles just in time.

"You just want to get in and get a big hit for that first snap," Rentmeester said. "It gets rid of everything and you just get focused on what you want to do."

Now that the Beaver Dam, Wis. native has that first play under his belt, he will be called upon a great deal more. At 6-0 and 249 pounds, Rentmeester is a shade lighter than Pressley, and against Temple he actually carried the ball six times for 31 yards.

The Badgers will use him primarily as a fullback, however. With the physical toll the position takes, the Badgers will need both players, especially without the luxury of a bye week before late November. Like his partner in crime, Rentmeester will need to learn the intricacies of the position. On occasion he did not look completely certain of himself.

"A couple of times I was pretty unsure about what the linebackers were doing," Rentmeester said. "I've got to read my keys better and cover everything up well."

Like both Bernstein and Pressley, the high school version of Rentmeester knew running more than blocking. He earned honorable mention all-state honors his senior season at Beaver Dam, rushing for 1,462 yards and 20 touchdowns. Naturally then it will take time to develop, especially in a game situation.

"Practice is one thing but the game is a whole different thing compared to practice," Rentmeester admitted. "The speed is different, the tempo is different, the hits are different."

Time not on their side

While that development takes time, it is something the Badgers do not have much of on their hands currently. Northwestern may be 2-2, but they know how to beat the Badgers, as they showed in their 16-7 win in Evanston in 2003. Following that, the team faces a tough test at Minnesota and still has Purdue, Penn State and Iowa on the schedule.

There will be little room for error and scant pity from opponents. However, the two-headed fullback unit does still have Bernstein behind them, if not paving the way.

"He's on the sideline watching everything," Rentmeester said. "After every offensive possession we'll come over to the sidelines and talk about what's going on.

"Bernie will say here's what the guys are doing, here's what you've got to look out for, here's how you should try to cover up that block."

Bernstein knows what it is like to grow in the role. When the senior arrived from Scarsdale, N.Y., he could barely block. Bernstein used the wrong techniques, led with the wrong part of his body and could barely keep up in conditioning. Now he finds himself the tutor rather than the apprentice. Among the things Pressley lists as learning from Bernstein include reading keys, using correct leverage, how to "shoulder", attacking from different angles depending on the player and anticipating blocks.

The fullback position may not be a glamorous one, but that does not mean it lacks in importance or detail. Pressley said he figured out the role is "more mental." Now the two players must develop that mental knowledge of the game quickly in order to replace a player who had grown into a consistent force as well as somewhat of a media darling of late.

The always fan favored Bernstein had seen significantly increased face time in television broadcasts as well as the scorecards of mock draft analysts. Many list him first or second in his graduating class at his position. Pressley and Rentmeester will need to fill some large shoes in a running game that is extremely critical to the Badgers' chances at a surprising Big Ten championship run.

"Honestly they're not Bernstein," Calhoun said. "Bernstein has four years of experience." "But as the weeks go on and they prepare better, I know that they're going to be in there playing and I think they're going to be a lot better."

Experience will be key. "Be a little more patient"' and "keep it under control" said Pressley of what he needs to do. "Covering everything up" and "hitting everything square" adds Rentmeester.

The two say they have a good working relationship, that they help each other out on the sidelines and that they spend time together frequently. Rentmeester and Pressley have long futures ahead of them in the Badger program. They will likely fill the role in years to come. For now, though, the present is the only thing on the minds of the coaching staff. There is little room for error.

"Chris and I both knew once Bernie went down that we were going to have to step it up a little bit and let them know that we were ready to play, that we were on everything, that we weren't going to make any mistakes in the game and that they could trust us to be out there," Pressley said.

It is what these two individual but quite connected players do with that opportunity, with that trust, that could go a long way to sealing the Badgers' fate.

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