When University of Wisconsin defensive ends Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih left this offseason after years of anchoring the position and Garrett Rand suffered a season-ending injury over the summer, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu knew his final season with the Badgers wouldn’t be like the rest.
His performance needed to jump up a level, but the real changes for Sagapolu began off the field — where his diet to that point included anything and everything the 348-pounder wanted to eat.
"I’m a McDonald’s baby. I’m not gonna lie about it,” Sagapolu said. “It was late-night eating. I have a real bad sweet tooth. I make a lot of cakes, cookies, a lot of ice cream. ... I still get my late-night meals at McDonald’s and stuff. I can’t help it."
While Sagapolu isn’t downing vegetables every meal, his weight-loss efforts have paid off through the Badgers’ first six games.
Sagapolu said he cut down to 334 pounds this offseason and improved his conditioning. That’s allowed the senior to play a consistent every-down role for the first time in his career. Not only is he still eating up blockers in the run game, but he’s become a threat to pressure the quarterback.
As early as the season’s first game against Western Kentucky, when sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk was out and two redshirt freshman defensive ends were seeing their first action as starters, Sagapolu’s role drastically expanded. He played every snap in the first half against the Hilltoppers, 20 of them in a nickel package, and didn’t miss a play until six minutes remained in the third quarter.
Since then, he’s continued to play a heavy role on third down — a rarity prior to this year — and has transformed into one of UW’s best pass-rushing defensive linemen.
“You knew going into the year it was going to be out of necessity,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "He hadn’t had to be in that role because of the depth. Some of the defensive ends around him were able to keep him as a true nose and play in base situations.
"We knew all along going into spring, going into summer that his role was going to be expanded. Did we necessarily think he was going to get this many snaps? No, but give the kid a lot of credit. He’s doing everything he can for this team. He’s leading a young group, but he’s also putting it out there almost every play."
Sagapolu wants to drop even more weight and continue to improve his conditioning. Ideally, he feels he could be the most effective around 330 pounds, and he doesn’t believe the lost weight’s affected his ability to stand strong against double teams in the run game.
"I lose a number in weight, but I’m still trying to have a lot more muscle mass on me,” Sagapolu said. "I think for me, it was just making sure I got with (nutritionist Shaun) Snee, working with him in terms of my diet and making sure that I was eating the right thing. I definitely think losing the weight helped me a lot in terms of being an all-down player.
"I think there’s still a lot of room for me to grow in terms of my conditioning, trying to make sure that I’m still effective even though my weight’s not as high as before but it’s still pretty up there."
Teammates said they’ve also seen a noticeable difference in Sagapolu’s leadership this season. Not normally very vocal, Sagapolu’s taken enjoyment in helping the Badgers’ young and inexperienced defensive linemen through their growing pains.
While he feels he can slim down a bit more and continue to improve in his new role, Sagapolu’s transformed himself into a more versatile member of the team both on and off the field.
“Thinking of Olive as slim, I never put those two words together,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said jokingly. "He’s not a sloppy, fat D-lineman. You see a lot of those. He’s a solid guy.
"I think he’s been doing a great job for us. He gets the job done. He does what he’s supposed to do and more."
Four DBs still questionable
Safeties D’Cota Dixon (right leg), Scott Nelson (right leg) and Reggie Pearson (left leg) and cornerback Faion Hicks (left leg) were still listed as questionable on UW’s updated injury report Thursday.
Cornerback Travian Blaylock (right leg) will miss his third straight game after being downgraded to out, while inside linebacker Griffin Grady (right leg) is no longer listed after beginning the week questionable.