"That would have been a good story," Nzegwu said. "You have to try something once in your life."
Consider it part of Nzegwu's ‘growing-up' process, a role that the former Platteville (Wis.) High star started to recognize when senior O'Brien Schofield played his final down as a member of the program.
Schofield was first team All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-American last season with 12 sacks and 24 1/2 tackles for loss. Nzegwu was on the other end of the spectrum, battling through a MCL injury in the spring and hurting his shoulder the week of the 2009 regular season opener.
Nzegwu finished with 3 1/2 sacks, including two against Minnesota, but just 10 tackles, leading to his cosmetic change.
"Over winter break is when I really started working harder than I did ever, which is when I cut my hair," Nzegwu said. "I really started taking a better outlook at things because I realized with OB gone, J.J., Patrick (Butrym) and me were going to be the leaders of the defensive line."
While Schofield was not with the program in the winter, his voice could be heard in the back of Nzegwu's mind. Getting a first-hand look at how Schofield dedicated himself to his craft the winter before his final season (i.e. watching film, long conditioning hours, become a leader), the ‘OB' factor has started to wear on Nzegwu.
"I took advantage of what he did because I was underneath his wing," said Nzegwu, who also credits Watt as a motivator. "Me and OB worked out a lot and watched a lot of film. He would watch film at home and was working for hours and hours. He had a phenomenal leadership, which is hard to replace."
Nzegwu has let Watt, one of the few juniors to receive votes for team captain, to take the leadership reign for the defensive line, but hasn't taken a backseat to his responsibilities, especially considering he's in a fierce competition with sophomore David Gilbert for the other starting defensive line spot.
New Ink for Gilbert
What makes the competition so competitive is that Gilbert, like Nzegwu, made a cosmetic change to get focused on the job at hand.
Playing in the final 12 games of the season, Gilbert made his mark on special teams. He recovered two fumbles against Wofford and scored a touchdown after a Chris Borland blocked punt. Weeks later, Gilbert went up and over the Purdue blocking wedge to block his first punt.
When it came to playing defensive end, Gilbert was lost at times behind Schofield, Watt and Nzegwu. He finished with only six tackles, and decided that getting a tattoo during the offseason was the perfect remedy to cure his homesickness. Now sporting a tattoo of the state of Florida with a star on his hometown (Coral Springs) on his right bicep, Gilbert's only focus is now on getting better at football.
"Everyone goes through a change from their first year to the second year," Gilbert said. "I just felt I like I had to learn my place and be patient, but still try to become as good as I possibly can."
The biggest learning lesson last year for Gilbert was the typical mixture for freshmen: learning the playbook, refining the technique and getting stronger in the weight room. The latter has been the biggest change for Gilbert since he enrolled at Madison in January 09. Going through his first spring drills weighing around 210 pounds, Gilbert has bulked up to 240 pounds, giving him that important renewed sense of confidence.
"I feel like if I use my technique and if I am in the weight room hard enough, I have the tools to be as successful as J.J.," Gilbert said. "It's all about how you approach it, and I've put myself in a constant attack mode."
Nzegwu Answers the Attack
Nzegwu isn't as hopeful for his maturity jump as his position coaches are, specifically Head Coach Bret Bielema. A first-team all-state running back as a senior, Nzegwu came to Wisconsin as a two-time team MVP that rushed for 1,708 yards and 23 TDs, but the coaching staff moved the athletic 6-foot-4, 247-pound Nzegwu as a rush end.
Nzegwu's sack numbers show how good he can be against the pass, but his small tackle numbers show that he has work to do against the run to be an every-down back.
"For him to play every down, he's got to be good against the run," Bielema said. "He's changed physically but the one thing he can do is run. I told him that maybe we should move him back to tailback. We've already got one 250-pound tailback. He's been very focused and conscientious."
Nzegwu acknowledged that his pass rush and strength wasn't up to snuff after his shoulder injury, a setback that stunted his progress until this past spring when he increased his body size, strength and range of motion. The biggest knock on Nzegwu was that he's decent against the pass, and average against the run, more added motivation for him.
"I was definitely one dimensional last year and not only with the run, but with my passing moves because I didn't have a lot of moves in my arsenal," Nzegwu said. "This year, I am trying to build a variety of moves. I still am off in some areas, but I am working on getting better."
Learning from Each Other
With the opener this Saturday at Nevada-Las Vegas, Bielema has said that Wisconsin could rotate five players at the defensive tackle and three at defensive end, meaning the ‘starting' label is a moot point. That point was reinforced Monday, as the depth chart listed Gilbert and Nzegwu as co-starting tackles opposite Watt. Just like it has been going all camp, the decision will come right down to the end.
"Starting is a big thing for me, but I just want the defensive line to get better," Nzegwu said. "With us battling each other, we feel we can be better than OB as a whole. With us going against the best offensive line in the country and against a guy like John Clay, it can't help but make both of us better."
With the main goal of getting better, the petty jealously has been erased. While still competing against each other, the duo has helped each other grow and turn their weaknesses into strengths, coming full circle and making the UW defensive line all that more formidable.
"I feel like we are just getting better," Gilbert said. "Anything that I am not doing myself, Louis helps me out and I do the same for him. We're learning from each other, and we just want to get better. As hard as we go, the better we get."