Ricky Wagner doesn't have to look far for inspiration and instruction. He need only look to his left at Bill Nagy and Kevin Zeitler, the tag team at right guard. Their spirited competition for playing time has set an example for Wagner, who will be replacing the injured Josh Oglesby and making his first collegiate start at right offensive tackle Saturday for the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.
"We both want to be out there, but we're just trying to do what is best for the team,'' said Nagy, speaking for Zeitler. "Kevin started every game last year. I started some games the year before. We have a great friendship and relationship on and off the field. We watch film together and we help each other out.''
What pushes them to get the most out of their ability? "We both know how special it is to be out there on Saturdays,'' Nagy said.
Message received. "I'm really excited to get this (starting) opportunity,'' said Wagner, a 6-foot-6, 322-pound sophomore from West Allis. "I'm going to try and take advantage of every snap. I just need to keep my focus. Like coach (Bret Bielema) says about the 1-and-0 mentality: One snap at a time. Getting some experience (against San Jose State) will give me a little more confidence.''
That is the key with any first-time starter. To this end, Wagner (a converted tight end) got some valuable exposure last Saturday after Oglesby was injured in the home opener. "He's a real quiet kid, who goes about his business in his own way,'' Bielema said of Wagner. "He probably, if anything, just lacks the confidence that you'd like.''
In this context, Wagner pointed out that Oglesby, a junior, has been extremely helpful this week in helping him prepare for the unknown (associated with a first start) and the known (an aggressive, athletic, trash-talking Arizona State defense). "We're good friends and he has been giving me tips on my techinques,'' Wagner said.
It has already been well-documented how Wagner drew more recruiting traffic as a basketball player than a football player in high school. UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay, among others, extended him scholarship offers to play hoops. "The biggest part of my basketball experience was the footwork,'' Wagner reflected.
That bodes well at offensive tackle, where Wagner has parlayed quick feet and a working knowledge of the defensive "slide'' step. Overall, Wagner has been adjusting to the "intensity and the speed of college football'' in baby steps. He also has been learning how to "carry'' his weight. When he showed up as a freshman, he was 265. Today's he's carrying nearly 60 more pounds on his lanky frame.
"My body just needed to get bigger,'' Wagner rationalized. "I worked hard in the weight room and, in the beginning, I ate more. It has been gradual and I think I've leveled off. I feel a little different (with the additional weight). But I'm getting used to my new frame.''
Wisconsin's offensive linemen have been working on their self-discipline in practice the last few days. Arizona State is one of the most penalized teams in the nation (118 out of 120 in the FBS). And the Badgers have been warned not to engage the Sun Devils in their own brand of gamesmanship. Last Saturday, they were guilty of 13 penalities against Northern Arizona. "We're going to have some penalties; that's just how we play,'' said ASU coach Dennis Erickson.
Arizona State's middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is usually in the middle of the woofing. He was flagged twice for personal fouls last week. Burfict and his fellow starting linebackers, Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee, all hail from the same high school (Centennial) in Corona, Calif. They're easy to spot on the field: 6-7-8. Lyons is No. 6, Burfict is No. 7, and Magee is No. 8. Yes, it was all by design, too.
What can the Badgers expect out of the 6-3, 245-pound Burfict? "I study Ray Lewis (of the Baltimore Ravens),'' Burfict told Azcentral.com. "I pretty much try to pick what he does, put it to me and try to make it better. It's just having a passion for the game.''
How will someone as raw as Wagner respond to the challenge? "He'll be able to step up and handle it,'' Nagy said. "He's a smart kid, a tough kid, too. He's tougher than a lot of people think.''