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Good first impression

By ZACH HEILPRIN
 
MADISON - So much has changed in Michael Deiter’s life over the past few months. Instead of enjoying his final semester at Genoa (Clay, Ohio) High School, he’s taking courses as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. Rather than playing baseball for the Comets, he’s butting heads with the Badgers’ defensive linemen. The free time that would have been prevalent back home has been replaced with a schedule so structured that there is rarely a moment unaccounted for. He’s experienced all those changes and yet it’s a simple comfort of home that has been the biggest difference.
 
“Probably sleeping in the bed in the Regent (Apartments). It’s so little,” the 6-foot-5, 310-pound, Deiter said. “I’m used to having a king-sized bed and then (I’ve got) this little tiny thing.”
 
The student housing aside Deiter has made the transition to Madison about as smoothly as any should-be senior in high school could. A native of Curtice, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo in the northern part of the state, Deiter graduated high school in 3 1/2 years and arrived on campus with six other early enrollees in January.
 
While not much was expected of the new Badgers, with the possible exception of quarterback D.J. Gillins, the 18-year-old Deiter got a surprise upon his arrival.
 
“I thought I was actually going to play guard and then when I got here (offensive line) coach (T.J.) Woods was like, ‘You’re going to be playing center. You better get snapping,’” Deiter said after a recent practice. “I was like, ‘Oh, that should be fun.’”
 
It was necessary because of last year’s starting centers – senior Dallas Lewallen and sophomore Dan Voltz – being held out of as they recover from injuries. Add in an overall lack of scholarship offensive linemen, and the guy who had never played the position before was lining up with the first-team offense when spring ball opened.
 
“It’s a crash course for life for Michael Deiter right now,” Woods said. “He’s doing a great job right now.”
 
Only the quarterback position on the field requires more mental acuity than playing center. He’s the guy in charge of the line calls and must get everyone else on the same page. Doing that against air would be tough enough, but when you throw in the constantly moving pieces of the Badgers defense, and Deiter’s progression becomes even more impressive.
 
“I’m encouraged by where he’s at,” Woods said of his young center that was a high honor roll student three times in high school. “I think he’s doing a heck of a job being a young kid right now that should still be in high school. If you really consider the circumstances, he’s really doing a heck of a job. 
 
“I think the number one thing I’m most impressed with right now is the ability for him to absorb the scheme and execute the scheme. Know how to get everything directed. Know how to get everybody targeted with all the stuff that we do. That’s a huge, huge bonus. To me that is the first step, knowing what you have to do and then you can start thinking about how to do it. And I think he’s starting to develop that now. I think he’s starting to think about his technique a little bit. He’s not on overload as much.”
 
Like most offensive line coaches, Woods rarely sugarcoats his assessments with one of his players. Deiter, who was a first-team all-state pick as a senior, hasn’t been immune from that and he likes it that way.
 
“I expect that. I want that in a line coach,” Deiter said of Woods style of coaching. “I don’t want a coach that’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing OK.’ I don’t want him to tell me I’m doing really good. I want him to always point out what I’m doing wrong and get me right.”
 
While he can count on Woods for help, he’s also been able to rely on the rest of the line for assistance, especially Voltz. An early enrollee in 2012, the redshirt sophomore knows what Deiter is dealing with – both on the field and off. On a regular basis the two will talk after a series of plays to discuss what happened. And Voltz isn’t the only one that’s been there for Deiter. Lewallen, guards Ray Ball and Kyle Costigan, along with tackles Tyler Marz and Rob Havenstein have helped him get accustomed to the college game.
 
“They’re not really worried about themselves,” Deiter said, while noting that even before spring ball got started Havenstein was helping him learn the offense. “They’re just trying to get everybody better so we can be a good unit as a whole.”
 
It hasn’t been all good news for Deiter, though that has more to do with the guy that normally lines up across from him – senior Warren Herring. The emotional leader of the Wisconsin defense, the nose guard has made things tough on Deiter at times this spring. He called blocking Herring the toughest thing he’s had to deal with, while also mentioning the late shifting the Badgers do along the line.
 
“I think he’s exceeded my expectations,” Woods said of Deiter. “What he’s being able to do right now, run with the one group and play against a guy, that I think, is as good as we’re going to see at the nose guard in Warren Herring. Warren’s a tremendous player and that shows up sometimes when he’s going against Deiter, but other times it doesn’t, and to me that’s a huge positive for him and us.”
 
It’s rare that a true freshman is physically ready to play on a UW offensive line. It’s barely happened since former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990. Only current Dallas Cowboy’s center Travis Fredrick started in his first year and he was also an early entrant. But Woods feels Deiter will be ready if needed this fall.
 
“He does,” Woods answered when asked if Deiter needed to add strength. “But I think that’s one thing that’s allowing him to have the success he’s having right now. He put in the time in high school and had a tremendous coach in high school that prepared him for the college level off the field. And I think that shows up. Now he’s got to get stronger. He’s still a freshman. But he definitely has a great foundation to build on.”
 
And he’ll likely be able to build on that foundation while watching from the sideline this year, as Voltz and Lewallen are expected back before UW opens fall camp in August. But Woods likes the direction Deiter is heading.
 
“He’s a very driven. He’s very dedicated,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a young guy spend as much time on tape in the film room. He loves the game of football. And that’s what it takes.”
 
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin