Isaiahh Loudermilk certainly looks the part of a dominant defensive end at the college football level. He’s 6-foot-7, 306 pounds and can move about as well as some linebackers.
When he arrived in Madison last year from Howard, Kansas, however, he faced an entirely new world of football than he experienced during his prep days. Loudermilk played eight-man football at West Elk High, and he needed much more than size and athleticism before he was ready to play for the University of Wisconsin.
“Oh, yes, I was 100 percent (clueless last year),” Loudermilk said. "Coming in to a new system, you’ve got a lot of new stuff to learn. And nerves, there were a lot of nerves. I was so nervous last year.
“Coming in and not knowing a single thing about really what’s going on, and then a year later, I’m running in with the ones. It’s been pretty exciting."
Regardless of how much Loudermilk impresses during fall camp, he won’t be starting this season. The Badgers return every defensive lineman from 2016 and have three senior defensive ends — Conor Sheehy, Alec James and Chikwe Obasih — with a combined 62 career starts.
But defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield sees potential in the redshirt freshman, leading him to plug Loudermilk into the first-team rotation during UW’s first two weeks of practice.
"I’m letting him get the feel for it,” Breckterfield said. "He has a lot of learning to do. He does. But I like where he’s at. I’m just trying to feed him as many reps as I can, and hopefully at the end of fall camp, I’m comfortable that he can help us this year."
Even breaking into rotation along the Badgers’ defensive line would be an impressive feat for Loudermilk. Along with Sheehy, James and Obasih, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu returns for his third year as a starter. Sophomore Garrett Rand also got his feet wet last year, while Billy Hirschfeld is trying to prove he deserves more reps.
By camp’s end, Loudermilk may simply be too good to leave off the field. He’s still working to better understand UW’s playbook, but the physical tools are there and he now possesses a greater understanding of what he should be doing on the field.
"I’ve still got a lot of stuff to learn playbook-wise, some of the details, but going out there and playing, I’m a lot more comfortable than last year,” Loudermilk said. “Coach told me he kind of wants me to have a role. I’ve just got to see how camp goes. I’m just going to have to keep working through camp. I’ve still got a lot to learn, and then we’ll see where it ends up when September first rolls around."
Loudermilk said it’s actually better for him that UW returned all its players at his position. He still often leans on those seniors for help, and the Badgers could have used more depth a year ago when Sagapolu and Sheehy missed games due to injury.
Loudermilk’s play over the final few weeks of UW’s preseason may go a long way to determining how big of a role he plays this season, but he appears to be putting himself in prime position to see the field.
"That’ll be determined at the end of camp, but I like where he’s at,” Breckterfield said. "I like what he’s doing, I like the way he works and he’s been productive. Whether he’s with the ones or the twos, he’s got production. He’s making the case for some playing time."