Freshman end proves invaluable

On a defensive line ravaged with injuries, Matt Shaughnessy has been extraordinarily important

Matt Shaughnessy was always a fan of the Police Academy movies. The ones where the police force is running thin in a time of crisis. The mayor ends up relying on a fresh, untested unit of new officers who are expected to come in with no experience and save the day. They end up holding the force together.

Sound familiar?

The plotline bears a resemblance to the woes of the Badgers defensive line this season. With three key names injured by the end of week three, and a number of them banged up since, Wisconsin has relied heavily on a group of new players this year, most notably the true freshman Shaughnessy, to hold together the MASH unit known as the defensive line.

The 19-year-old defensive end was not even born when the first of those movies came out and his favorite character, played by former NFL player Bubba Smith, saved the department. Like the once-great Smith though, Shaughnessy plays the defensive end position like a natural. The Badgers have needed him to, desperately.

"He's really physically tough," said defensive line coach John Palermo. "For a kid to go 83 snaps against a team like Minnesota and just keep going and going and going, it's a great tribute to him and his family and the way he was brought up because he is one tough son of a gun."

Eighty-plus snaps might already sound like a tough first-year assignment. Add on top of that the fact that it was against arguably the toughest offensive line and rushing attack in the nation and the task sounds daunting for anyone, let alone a true freshman.

This time last year, Shaughnessy was playing on both sides of the football for his high school team at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Conn. In 2005 you will find him on the pages of Sports Illustrated, listed as one of the top impact freshmen in the country.

First, backup tackle Mark Gorman broke his foot. Then the line lost left tackle Justin Ostrowski in preseason camp to a knee injury. When things started to look bleak for a line already decimated by the NFL Draft, they got bleaker. Right end Jamal Cooper suffered a season ending knee injury at North Carolina and suddenly the line was dangerously thin and very inexperienced.

Today, anyone who bought stock in Shaughnessy before camp is definitely seeing a good return on investment. While the coaching staff scrambles to fill spots and conform to a constantly changing identity on its line, they would cringe to think where they might be without the surprising reliability Shaughnessy has provided.

"In camp he initially showed talent, and he showed a lot of physical toughness for a guy that only weighs 225 pounds," Palermo said. "He is an unusual football player because he's a very bright kid and he's more than what I ever even hoped for."

Palermo recruited the 6-foot-6 end last year, visiting him at home in Connecticut. What he saw was a kid with speed and definite athleticism. However, he did not necessarily anticipate the power that Shaughnessy brings at opposing offensive lines. Left tackle Joe Thomas and the Badgers found out quickly enough in camp, where coaches and players alike were thoroughly impressed with a physical dimension to the freshman's game they had not necessarily seen coming.

"I didn't know that he would be like that," Palermo said. "He's just generally a really physical, tough kid."

At just 225 pounds, Shaughnessy is about 15-20 pounds above his playing weight last season, but consistently goes up against double teams from guys each weighing at least 40-50 pounds more than him. He keeps his motor running regardless. Following Saturday's game at Minnesota, despite the overwhelming success of the Gopher offense, UW head coach Barry Alvarez said it was "unbelievable" how well Shaughnessy held up.

Asked to comment on that evaluation, Shaughnessy chose to focus on where he needs to go from here.

"I just hope to get better, because you always make mistakes," Shaughnessy said. "Hopefully, I'll correct those mistakes I've made so far."

With some room left on that tall frame, Shaughnessy said he hopes to add about another 20 to 25 pounds eventually, which could only increase his deceptive power. Palermo agreed with that assessment, noting that he would not want Shaughnessy to get too big at the risk of his speed and athleticism.

"He's got a great motor," Palermo said. "I don't think I've had a player since Tom Burke with the motor he has."

That is quite the compliment from a coach who has molded some great defensive linemen over the years, including the Big Ten single-season sack record-holder Burke, to which he referred.

This week Shaughnessy will need to pull even more weight than those 225 pounds of his. With freshman tackle Jason Chapman and sophomore end Kurt Ware banged up and out of practice all week, defensive linemen are beyond endangered species status on this team and are a couple men away from approaching all-out extinction. Ostrowski may return on Saturday, but Shaughnessy will be the one counted on to go full-force against Purdue.

Hopefully for the Badgers, he will put together a performance worthy of reminding Purdue what they missed out on when he chose Wisconsin over the Boilermakers, Boston College, Michigan State and Connecticut. He built a relationship with Palermo and liked what he saw when he came to visit Madison.

"It was nice because [Palermo] told me there was a spot open and one of the freshmen would have a chance to play," Shaughnessy said.

"A chance to play" seems like an understatement at this point. With Joe Monty also dealing with an injury and likely limited for Saturday, Shaughnessy is part of a first-team front four that entered 2005 with no starting experience. That lack of tutelage might discourage some players. It has been clear at times just how young and banged up this unit is — most notably in the past two weeks. Yet, Shaughnessy is just thankful for what he has learned so far.

"In the beginning, behind [Cooper] and [Monty], they always helped me out," Shaughnessy said. "They helped me out with everything I had to deal with.

"Everything is always getting thrown at you but you learn it along the way."

The only worry is whether a season of competition at this level will begin to take its toll on Shaughnessy. The Badgers might not have expected him to make this kind of impact on the team this season, but now that he has, they cannot afford to lose him. Shaughnessy said he doesn't worry about it, but each week provides a new challenge for this team. He will need to stay tough if the Badgers keep getting themselves into shootouts like they have of late.

"I worry about a guy like Shaughnessy playing 65-70 snaps a game, and as the season progresses we seem to be playing better and better football teams," Palermo said. "So, yeah I worry about that part of it, but that's college football. You've got to play the hand you're dealt and do the best you can."

For now, Shaughnessy just continues to plug away and adapt to everything asked of him. Like the gentle giant played by Bubba Smith, he keeps it quiet much of the time. "Off the field I'm not that loud," he says.

In his weekly press conference, Alvarez called attention to the fact that within the numbers of these high scoring affairs, cynics can lose sight of the fact that Wisconsin is lining up an assembled platoon of bodies against some very good offenses.

There are, Alvarez said, "a lot of young guys that maybe are playing before they actually should be ready to play."

Though that may definitely be the case, Shaughnessy does not appear to be one of them.

Actually, he has ended up holding the force together.

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