It's easy to take a look at A.J. Fenton's freshly shorn locks and trimmed beard and jump to the conclusion it's a fresh start this spring for the University of Wisconsin football team's linebacker.

In fact, a lot of UW coaches have made that point.

"Some of my coaches tease me about it, 'You cut your hair, now you're playing better,'" Fenton said.

Fenton drew plenty of comments about the shoulder-length hair and full beard he had last season, including comparisons with everyone from Jesus to outfielder Johnny Damon.

But after returning home from the Rose Bowl, Fenton thought about it for a couple of weeks, then decided to cut the hair he spent three years growing out. The beard, which was at a couple of days' stubble the other day, is an ongoing thing.

"I like it short, the maintenance is easier, I like the look better," he said.

Whatever the reason for the new look, it certainly struck the fourth-year junior he is halfway through his college eligibility.

"I think we're all seeing a change in A.J.," linebackers coach Andy Buh said. "He's walking with a different beat right now. He sees an opportunity."

Fenton opened spring workouts as the No. 2 strong-side linebacker behind junior Conor O'Neill. After six practices, the coaches elevated Fenton to No. 1 and he has been there ever since.

"We've been seeing it from the first day on, he's just been silently competing and executing out there, without saying a word," Buh said.

Fenton, from Erie, Pa., was an option quarterback and running back in high school. He had a tougher transition than many players but refuses to make excuses. He has been a significant contributor on special teams, but his playing time on defense has been limited.

"I don't want to use that as an excuse," he said of his position switch. "I definitely struggled, I'll give you that. I'm just trying to get better every day. In three years, you figure sooner or later something's got to click."

Fenton was expected to contend for a starting job in camp last year but he was slowed by a hamstring injury. Senior Kevin Claxton became the starter.

"We all hope a time comes where things start to come together and you start to be able to manage the game, have experience at the game, be able to know what you're doing," Fenton said. "I think that's finally happening. I'm really enjoying it."

Fenton might be the fastest linebacker on the team, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Last spring, he beefed up to 235 pounds but felt sluggish and lost some speed.

Over the winter, in addition to cutting his hair, he ate better and now weighs a lean 220.

"He lost probably about three pounds in hair," UW coach Bret Bielema said.

There were discussions about moving Fenton to fullback, given he rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his prep career with 54 touchdowns. But Bielema was adamant about keeping him at linebacker.

"I sat down with him and said, 'I think you can play this position, you just haven't played a lot of it,'" Bielema said.

As the sam linebacker, Fenton could line up over the tight end or the No. 2 receiver, which is why his speed comes in handy.

"As athletes, we love a good challenge," Fenton said. "That's what it is every time you line up on No. 2 (receiver) and you're reading your progression, it's a challenge and it's fun."

Fenton is far from securing a starting job. Junior Ethan Armstrong is out all spring after undergoing surgeries on both hips and is expected to compete for the job in camp provided he can get healthy. O'Neill also is nipping at Fenton's heels.

Among Fenton's talents is playing the guitar. He was a performer on Monday night at the Buckinghams, the awards event that honors academic and off-field achievements among other things. He played the guitar, while softball player Kendall Grimm sang the Katy Perry song, "Firework."

Now, Fenton is trying to create his own fireworks on the field. He stopped short of saying he was at the point of "now or never" in his career.

"I'm at a place where I'm going out, instead of coming in," he said. "I think every player goes through it, unless it's an easy transition for them — which it hasn't been for me.

"Definitely, the clock starts ticking. You want to put pressure on yourself to do better and be a better football player. I think that's what I've done."

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