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Inside the Huddle: ‘Crucial leader’ Sagapolu enhances own game through teaching


BY MIKE LUCAS Senior Writer

MADISON, Wis. — Near the end of training camp, Wisconsin senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu was fretting over something out of his control. The weather.

With Hurricane Lane bearing down on Hawaii, his thoughts were with his family, particularly his mother, who lives in Ewa Beach, a little over 40 minutes from Honolulu on the island of Oahu.

As the hurricane approached, it was a Category 5 at one stage before diminishing into a tropical storm that dumped heavy rain on the eastern side of the Big Island and caused damage on Maui.

“My family is all good,” Sagapolu said with a faint smile. “I know that my mom is fine.”

That was also the good news for his Badgers teammate, senior offensive lineman Micah Kapoi, whose family lives five miles away from Sagapolu’s in Kapolei.

While waiting on updates, Sagapolu said, “It was definitely one of those things where there was nothing that I could really do up here but leave it in the hands of God. I prayed about it every day.”

Growing up in America Samoa, he was too young to remember many details of the storms that blew across the South Pacific islands. Ignorance was bliss at that age.

Last week, whenever he had a free moment from football, he was checking his weather app.

“I’d see the forecast every day,” he said, “and I’d text my mom and I’d called her just to make sure she was okay, just to make sure everybody in my house was okay. I’m so glad everything worked out.”

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Martina Sagapolu will be at Camp Randall Stadium on Friday night to watch her son make his 19th career start in the season opener against Western Kentucky.

“We’re excited to play under the lights at Camp Randall,” said Sagapolu, who has played in 36 games overall. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what our young guys have been doing in fall camp.”

Professor Sagapolu has been schooling the starting defensive ends, Matt Henningsen, one of the camp surprises; and Kayden Lyles, a converted offensive lineman. Both are redshirt freshmen.

Sagapolu’s classroom has included his understudy, Bryson Williams, a true freshman; and two unproven backup defensive ends, Aaron Vopal, a redshirt frosh and David Pfaff, a junior with little experience.

“Camp has been fun for me just teaching these young guys every day what the techniques should be,” Sagapolu said. “It also teaches me — knowing every guy’s assignment.

“At the end of the day, it can increase my pre-snap knowledge and my understanding of run schemes and pass schemes and things like that.”

Earlier this week, Sagapolu shared his thoughts on Henningsen, Lyles and Williams.

On Henningsen (6-foot-3, 277 pounds): “Hen-Dog has progressed very well. We saw a little bit here and there during the spring. But in fall camp he took that step.”

On Lyles (6-3, 323): “I’m seeing a lot from him. He’s definitely one of those guys who really takes to heart what he does. He’s still learning and he’s doing well for himself which I’m very proud of.”

On Williams (6-2, 301): “His development is where it needs to be. He has progressed a lot faster than I did during my freshman year, which is a great thing. Today, he even got a pick off the screen.”

The pupil was just following the teacher’s lead. Sagapolu also has an interception to his credit during training camp. He joked, “The D-line has more picks than the inside linebackers.”

Olive Sagapolu football vs. Ohio State 2017

Truth is, he couldn’t recall the last time that he had caught a pass.

“First time ever,” said the 6-2, 342-pound Sagapolu. “I’ve always been a lineman. I’ve always been on the big, hefty side. Everybody knows what happened the last time I tried catching the ball.”

Sagapolu dropped a potential interception against Iowa.

“Nobody will ever let me forget it, either,” he said, sighing.

Hands aside, Sagapolu has everything else you’d want in a dominant nose tackle.

“He’s always been very powerful,” said senior offensive guard Michael Deiter. “But last year and this year he has put that power with his backflipping athleticism.

“So, you get a guy who’s 340 but he moves like he’s 290 or 300. He’s quite the load. Usually at 340, you’re just expecting power and you can fight it with power and aggression.

“But when you get a guy that’s nimble, he can heat you up with speed, or he can heat you up with power and speed. It’s just a whole component that makes our job a lot harder.

“He can beat you in a lot of different ways. When you’re smart like he is, it makes it tough.

“But you appreciate it as an offensive linemen because the odds are you might never get a guy that good across from you all year. That kind of size, that kind of athleticism makes us a lot better.”

By the same token, Sagapolu said, the defensive line, however inexperienced, has benefited from competing daily in practice against arguably the finest offensive line in college football.

Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards are first-team All-Americans.

“Going against them every day is an exciting feeling,” said Sagapolu, a community and nonprofit leadership major. “There’s no other place in the country where you get to go against such stellar guys.

“The offensive linemen are all good buddies of mine.”

As the lone senior on the D-line depth chart, Sagapolu has been adopted by the O-line.

“He’s a guy who’s just like me — he’s always having fun, smiling, doing something goofy,” Deiter said. “He’s pretty much one of us. He eats like us and appreciates the big guy lifestyle.”

While Deiter is one of four captains, Sagapolu doesn’t need the “C” to be a leader.

“Just because he wasn’t voted a captain,” Deiter emphasized, “doesn’t mean that he’s not one of the crucial leaders on this team, because he is.”

The only way that Sagapolu can realize his own leadership expectations is to stay on the field. Up until now, he has usually been removed for an additional defensive back on passing downs.

“I’ve really worked hard this spring and summer to try and improve my pass rush and playing ability in trying to be an all-down guy,” he said. “It’ll be exciting to not run to the sideline all the time.”


1. Quarterback Drew Eckels has been tasked with replacing two-year starter Mike White, a fifth-round pick of Dallas. White threw for 8,540 yards (.660) with 63 touchdowns and 15 picks in 27 games.

2. Eckels, a fifth-year senior, was 8-of-11 for 86 yards last season. He’s 15-of-24 for 214 yards in his career. Threw first TD pass in 2016 opener at Alabama, a 38-10 loss.

3. The Hilltoppers have only three returning part-time starters (none in the same position as last year) on an offensive line that gave up 48 sacks (minus-348 yards), including six in a game twice.

4. Leading rusher D’Andre Ferby had 117 carries for 373 yards (35 fewer than Melvin Gordon vs. Nebraska) last year. Was injured in 2016. Rushed for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015.

5. Must replace top three receivers who had a combined 168 catches for 1,865 yards and 15 TDs. Dontavian (Lucky) Jackson returns with 39 receptions for 600 yards and 3 scores.

6. Have just 10 seniors (none with O-line) on roster (65 true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, sophomores). Only Illinois (8), Ball State (9), Memphis (9), SMU (9) have fewer seniors.

7. Lost two graduate transfers to Big Ten: Punter Jake Collins to Northwestern and center Dennis Edwards to Purdue. Collins was three-year fixture (41.3 average). Edwards had 39 starts.

8. No stranger to postseason football, Western Kentucky has gone bowling four straight years: Bahamas Bowl, Miami Beach Bowl, Boca Raton Bowl and Cure Bowl.

9. Notable Hilltopper alums: horror-theme filmmaker John Carpenter (“Halloween”); drummer Steve Gorman (Black Crowes) and former XFL tailback Rod Smart (“He Hate Me”).

10. In December, on in-bounds play with two seconds left in a tie game, UW’s Brad Davison drew a foul on Marek Nelson and made one of two free throws for an 81-80 win over WKU at the Kohl Center.



Taggart. Petrino. Brohm. That was the line of succession leading up to second-year Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford. Willie Taggart, a former Hilltopper quarterback, was 16-20 over his three seasons as head coach (2010-2012). Taggart is now Florida State’s head coach. Bobby Petrino was 8-4 in his only season (2013). Petrino is now Louisville’s head coach. Jeff Brohm was 30-10 over his three seasons (2014-2016). Brohm is now Purdue’s head coach. Sanford, 36, is the third youngest head coach in the FBS behind Kent State’s Sean Lewis, 32 (a former UW quarterback-tight end); and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 34. Prior to getting the WKU job, Sanford was the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Notre Dame, where he groomed DeShone Kizer, now Aaron Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay.


On how a season opener is different from other games, Deiter said:

“You’re a little nervous. I’ve played in however many football games; a lot of guys have. We’ve done a season opener against LSU at Lambeau Field. But you haven’t played in how long? You should be better than you were last year, but there’s no guarantee. You have the confidence, but you just never know until you go out and play. I always think there’s a little added when it’s that first game. You know it’s a new year and they’re going to be new faces and there’s a new you. And you just have to be better than you were last year.”

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