Eight of Wisconsin’s offensive and defensive starters are seniors. Six of those come from the defensive side of the ball. Looking at the second team defense, two more seniors hold their spots. Two more, T.J. Edwards and Nick Nelson, may also make the decision to move on to the NFL level.
The players keyed up to take their spots are young; most of them freshman and sophomores.
But there is still one last battle together, and some more learning the seniors want to bestow on the younger players who will be taking over next year.
“A lot of leadership. The team is going to be really young next year,” safety Natrell Jamerson said. “The seniors are a whole bunch of starters, so we just instill in the young guys how to lead and how to go about things in the right way. That’s one thing I think we’ll leave behind as a legacy.”
For some, it is about upholding a legacy. Seniors work as the seniors before them did. It is possible this is one of the reasons why Wisconsin has stayed competitive over years of coaching changes.
Senior linebacker Leon Jacobs wants to leave that standard of stability.
“A standard, that last year’s seniors left us. That this is Wisconsin and there’s a way we do things, and if you do those things that great things can happen like in this season,” Jacobs said. “So I think for the underclassmen, we left them with awfully big shoes.”
As a junior, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu has appreciated what his fellow starters are leaving behind, and looks forward to being that for his fellow teammates in the season to come.
“Playing for each other. I mean, playing with each other, for each other. It’s definitely a big thing. Especially for our defense,” Sagapolu said. “Just looking to the left of you and the right of you and knowing that he has your back and willing to go through hell for each other.”
The seniors’ motivation has been contagious. You can see it in the games that played out over the course of the 2017 season. Corner back Derrick Tindal runs over to Nick Nelson after a good play, or a bad play. Constantly motivating and celebrating together.
Senior linebacker Garret Dooley working Northwestern for three sacks and then junior linebacker Ryan Connelly rattling off 10.5 tackles for loss in the games to follow. Seniors lead, underclassmen follow.
And the seniors are just happy to have one last ride.
“Means a lot. My last ride with these guys. It’s been great. I’m going to miss them after this last game. Just go out and have as much fun as possible,” Jamerson said.
High school coaches around the country consistently share the same message. Play every play like it’s your last. Because you never know when it will be all gone. The football, the team, the family and the glory.
It’s hard knowing a coming game will be your last and also knowing it isn’t for all the marbles, isn’t for the championship. But the Wisconsin players can take solace knowing they get to ride into battle for one last go with the player to their right and the player to their left.
“Just my teammates. Being around here for four years now,” Jamerson said. “Been around a bunch of guys on the four teams but this team was special. This team has a good bond, I’m going to miss that a lot.”