Sophomore defensive tackle Beau Allen was surprised prior to a University of Wisconsin football practice last week when told by defensive line coach Charlie Partridge he was going to be tried at end during the workout.
Not only did Allen find himself at the power end position for a series, he dropped into coverage on a zone blitz and was asked to run with a tight end about 20 yards downfield.
The last time Allen could remember dropping into coverage was against Ohio State last season, but he just had to hang in the middle of the field.
"I never had to run with anyone before," Allen said. "It was interesting. It's kind of fun to get out there in space and try a new position."
That's one example of the all-hands-on-deck approach the Badgers are taking to the loss of standout defensive end J.J. Watt, who departed after his junior season and is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick later this month.
Partridge can't remember making a single reference during spring practices about what it's going to take to replace Watt, since his players are keenly aware of the void that has been created.
"They know," Partridge said. "I really haven't referenced it at all. It's everywhere you turn, the question is, 'How are you going to replace J.J.?' You can't replace J.J. with one guy. It has to be all of us."
That includes Allen, even though he plays a different position. One of the things Partridge is blessed with is a large number of big bodies at the tackle positions. The top four tackles return from last season — senior Patrick Butrym and sophomores Allen, Jordan Kohout and Ethan Hemer.
Toss in junior Eriks Briedis, who got limited playing time, and rising redshirt freshman Kyle Costigan and Partridge has an abundance of options.
"I think we have a great core of defensive tackles," Allen said. "We're trying to take on a bigger role and make more plays, certainly. I think we're definitely capable of doing it."
The one thing the six have in common is size: The group averages 296 pounds.
The smallest is Butrym at 284. The biggest is Allen, who is listed at 325 but has gotten down to 320 after being as high as 340 last season.
Allen has excellent feet and is considered to be a terrific athlete for somebody his size. He feels even more athletic at the lighter weight.
"I was trying to lose fat and gain muscle, which is always difficult," he said. "I did it over eight weeks, so I think I did it the healthy way.
"I feel like my conditioning is better than it was and I think I've got an extra little burst and speed, compared to last year, so I'm really happy with that."
By most standards, Allen's debut would be considered a smashing success. He was a contributor as a true freshman on a team that made it to the Rose Bowl. Yet, he was far from satisfied.
He finished with 15 total tackles, playing in all 13 games, but his name didn't show up in any of the other final defensive statistics.
"It was just fine and dandy I got playing time as a freshman, but I really wish I would have done more production-wise and stepped into a larger role," Allen said. "That's my goal for spring ball and fall camp."
Junior David Gilbert, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, is expected to start in Watt's spot.
While most fans will rightly remember Watt's big plays — he had 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, nine passes defensed, three forced fumbles and three blocked kicks — he was also a 290-pound anchor for the run defense.
"After having J.J. for a couple years, you realize the advantage of having a 300-pound-type body," Partridge said. "Beau has the feet to do it, if we're playing an Iowa or that type of team. Having that (size) at that spot is good to have in your back pocket, so we're going to train him a little bit there."
Spring practices are a time to see what players can and can't do. No one is expecting Allen to cover a tight end 20 yards downfield, but if he can slide outside against some teams on running downs, it's the type of varied contributions it will take to make up for the loss of Watt.
"It's going to take all of those veterans, all of those guys that have experience," Partridge said. "All of them are going to have to up their production to make up for what J.J. has done here for a couple years."