Leon Jacobs’ 2015 football season was far from a memorable one.
The University of Wisconsin junior inside linebacker missed much of fall camp because of a dislocated toe and was ejected for targeting in the first quarter against Troy during the third game of the season.
True freshman Chris Orr played so well in Jacobs’ absence that Jacobs lost his starting job the next week. Less than a month later, Jacobs reinjured his toe, prematurely ending his season.
A call from former UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in October, though, shed a different light on Jacobs’ otherwise grim fall.
“(Outside linebackers coach Tim) Tibesar wants you at outside linebacker,” Aranda told him. “Coach (Paul) Chryst has been mentioning fullback.”
After the initial shock of Chryst’s idea wore off, it was a welcome challenge for Jacobs, who made a name for himself as a successful running back at Golden Valley High School in Bakersfield, California.
“It just caught me off guard,” Jacobs said. “I just had to think about it and embrace it.
“Then a month or two later, coach Chryst talked to me and (offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph) talked to me, around the bowl game, and I said, ‘All right, let’s just go for it.’ ”
Jacobs has jumped all in at his new position.
Running backs coach John Settle said Jacobs was at the football offices every day in the winter, eager to learn the offense and more about playing in the backfield.
Jacobs, now having experienced 10 spring practices on offense, is learning how to play both fullback and running back, and the coaching staff believes he has the talent to be a major piece of the offense during the 2016 season.
“I think he’s got an acceleration and an explosiveness to the line of scrimmage,” Rudolph said. “When we talk about the fullback, you always talk about, can they make their block on the other side of the line of scrimmage rather than in the backfield? Guys that can get to that spot, that’s huge. I think he’s got an athleticism to make plays in space. He’s aggressive and strong.
“I like Leon, man. He’s tough. One of the biggest things was, it was hard to watch a guy like that maybe not be in a position to be on the field as much (on defense). I was like, ‘Let’s get that cat on the field.’ ”
In the first scrimmage of the spring on April 2, Jacobs carried the ball eight times for 31 yards and showed impressive power on short-yardage plays.
But his production on the offensive side of the ball hinges on building consistency, mainly concerning his pad level. Settle said at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Jacobs doesn’t always stay low enough, whether he’s run blocking, carrying the ball or protecting the passer.
“I can get better at it,” Jacobs said. “It’s just different because on defense, you’re meeting a guy there. Now, I’m setting the tone. It obviously just comes with technique and practice.”
Jacobs will be competing with Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold for playing time at fullback this season, and he still has nearly five months to improve.
Settle is confident in Jacobs’ potential for a breakout season.
“Nobody’s frustrated because we can kind of see the diamond in the rough, and hopefully in the end when this is over and done with, he’ll be able to put it all together play in and play out,” Settle said. “When he does it right, he’s a powerful man. When he can get his pads down and he can keep moving on contact and does it the right way, it’s a pretty thing to watch.
“I told him we’re going to coach him until he gets it or we run out of time, and that’s our approach. I’m just telling you, if he keeps working at it, he has an opportunity to be very good and help us in the fall.”
Tight ends catch on
The tight ends continued to produce in the passing game during Thursday’s practice at Camp Randall Stadium.
Troy Fumagalli caught seven passes during team and 7-on-7 drills, the most of any player, while Kyle Penniston had three and David Edwards made a nice grab deep over the middle. Fumagalli and Penniston each scored a touchdown during 7-on-7.
Quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook have targeted the position group often this spring. Redshirt freshmen such as Penniston and Edwards have looked game ready at times, though Rudolph believes they still need to find more consistency over the next five months.
“Kyle’s shown the ability to make some plays. He shows toughness,” Rudolph said. “David’s made some of the best big-angle catches. He’s a giant target going across the field. It’s just consistency more than anything. But you do see out of them that, when they can be at their best, they can be pretty good.”
Rushing on a roll
George Rushing had another impressive practice, tying for second on the team with four catches during team drills and burning redshirt freshman cornerback Titus Booker down the sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
Rushing also ran for another 64-yard touchdown on an end-around.
The performance came two practices after he caught eight passes for 134 yards and a touchdown Saturday during the second scrimmage of the spring.