It has been easy to overlook sophomore safety Michael Caputo at times this season on the University of Wisconsin football team’s senior-laden defense.
But that shouldn’t be an issue any more after Caputo was forced to miss the final regular-season game with a head injury.
The UW defense had its worst performance of the season in the 31-24 loss to Penn State and while that can’t all be blamed on Caputo’s absence, his value to the team was never more evident.
Even defensive coordinator Dave Aranda acknowledged it was a case, perhaps, of not fully appreciating the value of something until it was gone.
“Correct,” Aranda said. “Absolutely.”
Caputo is smart enough to have played five positions, including the “F” (field) linebacker, nickel, dime, strong safety and free safety.
“They all fall hand in hand,” Caputo said. “If you know the scheme of the defense, it’s real easy to know what a lot of people do.”
The Badgers have had success mixing and matching four or five different players at safety. But Caputo was involved in every defensive scheme and because he has such a high football IQ, Aranda relied on him to do several things in the base defense. That’s why Caputo was missed so much in the most recent game.
“The way we had been playing our safeties, there were certain guys doing certain things,” Aranda said. “A lot of it was base defense, things we’ve been doing all year long. Within those base defenses are certain adjustments, certain schematic things that only Caputo did. That was his role.
“He would take the tight end on a motion, or he would play in a certain alignment versus a certain look — only he did those things. With him being gone, all of those things kind of add up.”
Caputo actually was injured near the end of UW’s 51-3 win over Indiana on Nov. 16.
“I got hit twice,” Caputo said. “They took me out of that game, it was at the very end. I was checked out for a concussion and didn’t really have any (symptoms) then, but as the week went on, it kind of picked up.”
Caputo ended up playing the following week in the 20-7 win against Minnesota, but he didn’t feel right. Safeties coach Bill Busch also noticed something was wrong. Caputo was checked out again by doctors and ruled out on the Tuesday before the Penn State game.
“They were afraid it was a post-concussion-syndrome type of deal,” Caputo said.
He returned to practice a week ago wearing a green non-contact jersey and expects to be ready for the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina on Jan. 1. How Caputo managed to get through the Minnesota game is still a mystery.
“I was kind of spaced out,” he said. “I just didn’t feel (like) myself. I just didn’t feel like I was playing (like) myself. I kind of felt that throughout the week, but I was like, ‘All right, it’s going to get out of my system.’ ”
As hard as it was for Caputo to play against Minnesota, watching the Penn State game from the sideline was worse.
“It was pretty rough. I was considering going in the locker room and changing real quick,” he joked. “Just slip out on the field maybe.”
In addition to filling a variety of roles, Caputo has been one of UW’s best tacklers. His 62 stops trail only senior linebacker Chris Borland (102).
Caputo came into the season with a reputation for liking to hit. But helped by long arms and a lanky frame (6-foot-1, 206 pounds), he has become an excellent tackler.
“There are two things that jump out,” Busch said. “He has a freakish desire to make the tackle. He wants in on it. And he’s got long arms. He can reach and make plays that some guys can’t.
“That’s a big plus in tackling. Great tacklers are never short-armed guys, they’re just not. It’s hard to tackle when you don’t have long levers.”
Caputo has spent considerable time in a linebacker role because the coaches figured out he was more effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
“When he is near the line of scrimmage, things slow down for Michael,” Aranda said. “He’s very comfortable in that area. When he’s backed up, I think sometimes things speed up for him.”
Caputo had his best game with a career-high 12 tackles in a 27-17 win over BYU the week before he got hurt.
In many ways, Caputo represents the best aspects of UW’s defense — a versatile and reliable player who doesn’t get much attention. The only defensive player to make the first or second All-Big Ten Conference teams was Borland, a consensus first-team pick. Caputo was one of five honorable mention selections on defense.
“He definitely shows the mode of this team,” senior safety Dezmen Southward said. “We definitely don’t care where we’re put, we’re football players. Once we get there we’re going to make plays.”