MADISON — In 2012, a two-star running back recruit made the 12.8 mile drive from his hometown of Waunakee, Wis. to play for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Four years later and in his first year starting, senior safety Leo Musso has brought 186 pounds of playmaking into his final year as a Wisconsin Badger.
The 5’10” safety, who in high school ran for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns, is putting up similarly high numbers, this time on the other side of the ball. In the regular season, he has 59 total tackles and five interceptions.
“It starts out with his ability to communicate and see things,” defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said earlier in the season. “He plays fast. Once that ball is snapped, he’s going 100 miles an hour. We’re starting to see some of his big play ability that he has whether it’s interceptions, whether it’s return skills.”
Despite his ability to make a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball, Musso credits the front seven, of which he calls a group of unselfish guys for the work they do to give him the opportunity to make plays.
“They may see the success we’re having in the back end, and our names are getting called, but it’s really the front seven doing their job,” Musso said. “They don’t get as much credit as they deserve. We have the easy job of just covering guys and catching the ball. They have the hard job of beating double teams and triple teams and eating up blocks and getting to the quarterback.”
Musso’s humility may come from the love of his teammates and for the game. On the field, he illuminates energy that revitalizes the whole team. Off the field, he becomes the voice to push the team further, which is what he did last week against Minnesota.
With the Paul Bunyan Axe in hand, Musso gave teammates the motivation to turn things around after a dismal first half at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I just told everybody to relax, to forget what’s going on to forget it’s our last home game,” Musso said. “Let’s go out there and play. I just told them that’s the worst half of football that we’ve played as a team.”
With the regular season over and his name called for the last time at Camp Randall, Musso looks back on his time with the Badgers with fond memories despite tough losses and coaching changes. It’s the band of brothers that linked the team together no matter the difficulties faced.
“We know what one another are thinking and how we are feeling throughout certain situations in the game. When one of us gets down, it’s the other guy’s job to pick you back up and I think that’s kind of the neat thing about our secondary. We are very comfortable with one another and our communication is very well.”
Some experiences the group has faced together, such as the painful 59-0 loss against Ohio State back in the 2014 Big Ten Championship, are ones that Musso and teammates can use this weekend to fuel their momentum against Penn State.
“It was just a weird feeling leaving that game, getting beat that badly,” Musso recalls of his last trip to Indianapolis.
He does believe that the team’s experience in the Big Ten Championship gives them an advantage over Penn State, who has yet to play in a Big Ten Championship game.
“Knowing what to expect more than anything is definitely going to help us out.”
Musso knew since spring ball that this team had the capabilities to pull out such a successful season.
“You know good football when you see good football and you see good football players.”
That being said, outside criticism, particularly of Wisconsin’s tough schedule, gave him a chip on his shoulder that drove him to prove the naysayers wrong. While everyone else called the schedule one full of challenges, Musso preferred to call it “a schedule full of opportunities.”
Having sat behind starting safety Mike Caputo for his first three active years, Musso ends his collegiate career playing at the best of his capabilities, starting at safety and setting new career records for himself.
Ask him what he needs to improve on and he still will give you a list of areas of improvement, saying there’s always something you can work towards or a play you wish you could take back. Talk about his personal achievements, and he will turn it to his teammates and the work they have accomplished together.
That’s just the kind of guy Leo Musso is.