MADISON - When starting weak-side linebacker Jonathan Casillas went down with an ankle injury, the coaching staff, while concerned about the senior leader, knew that the first-team defense would hardly miss a beat.
Junior Jae McFadden emerged as a solid linebacker in the nickel package last season, registering 13 tackles, including three in the 2008 Outback Bowl.
Already getting a lot of reps and now lining up with the starting defense, McFadden knows how important this spring is to show the coaches that he is ready to play.
Badger Nation: Talk about your first couple of weeks and how things are going for you and what you have started to see out of yourself?
Jae McFadden: It’s going pretty good man. I am just trying to take it one day at a time, learning from my mistakes day by day and practice by practice to get better. As a player, I think I have a lot better knowing how to play linebacker. I definitely did not play linebacker much in high school. Every year, every play, every day I just try to get better to try and learn the linebacker fundamentals with technique and stuff like that.
BN: How valuable was that game experience last year playing on third down at the Mike (middle) position?
Jae McFadden: It was nice to be counted on in situations like that. It meant a lot. It got me use to the basics of the game, the speed, stuff like that and it gave me confidence to know that I could play this game. I feel like I can still play this game and I can be a starter but at the same time, I still want to help my team out in every way and just try to prove to the coaches and give them confidence in me that they can put me out in tough situations without hesitation and treat me as a starter.
BN: Like you said, that third down package instilled some confidence in you. Before that, did you feel like you could play that position at a high level and adjust?
Jae McFadden: Yeah because the coaches could have just stayed with their three main starting linebackers but they had confidence in me and gave me the opportunity to run with it. I am thankful for the opportunity and by me doing that, it gave them confidence and basically made them put me out there. Coach Doeren told me that if I do what I got to do, it will make it hard on him to not put me out there. If I do what I got to do, make plays, practice and show them that I can play, then they are going to have to tell themselves ‘Jae needs to be on the field.’ That’s what Coach Doeren told me so I want to make it hard for him and I think I am doing the right job.
The coaches have more than 11 guys that want to start and if I am making it hard on (the coaches), I am doing the right thing.
BN: Last year, you popped your elbow against the Northern Illinois game and the medical staff thought you would be out just a week and you were out with three. What happened exactly?
Jae McFadden: They thought a bursitis popped and that it would go away in a couple of days but I dislocated my elbow actually. And I dislocated it to where the bone popped out and tore some ligaments, so I had to wait for the ligaments to calm down, get back together or whatever. That took about three weeks and missed Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana. I keep rehabbing and rehabbing and actually wasn’t suppose to come back until the bowl game but I actually came back for the Minnesota game.
BN: Was that surprising that you had actually dislocated something? I remember talking to you after the game and you telling me that you felt fine and you’d be back in a week, no problem.
Jae McFadden: Yeah I remember. I never really broke or dislocated anything in my life. So I am thinking ‘All right, something just popped and I’ll be all right.’ So I thought that I would be back practicing by that next Tuesday or at least sometime by that next week. I took an MRI and it came back that I dislocated the elbow and tore some ligaments and needed some more time to heel.
BN: Did you get discouraged at all? It doesn’t sound like you would and that you were more focused on getting back and continuing to build your confidence?
Jae McFadden: Coach B and Coach Doeren kept telling me to just keep rehabbing and that we can get you back and would love to have you back. I just kept rehabbing and rehabbing and Minnesota was the game that I got cleared to play. I was excited because I wanted to go out there and play. It never discouraged me because I knew that I could get my elbow back and that my game wouldn’t go down. I knew that I would be back and ready to go.
BN: How important is this spring for you? You talk about wanting to instill confidence in the coaching staff and you deserve to be on the field but how have you felt this spring has gone?
Jae McFadden: I think this spring is real important for me to show them that I can make that step and be a starter if I needed to be. To see Casillas go down, I think the coaches have that confidence in me to fill in and that’s a good feeling coaches like to have. They know I can go in there and clean up and do my job. I am starting down the right path and making strides to be able to play at this level.
BN: With Casillas going out, you are going to be getting more reps and see more time. Has it hit you that this could really help you in the long run seeing more playing time?
Jae McFadden: I go back to training camp when DeAndre Levy went down and missed the last two weeks of training camp. I was still playing the Will and coach put Blake (Sorensen) at the Will and me at the Sam and I tried to take advantage of it and I think I did. Afterwards Coach B told me that he had a lot of confidence in me and that I was one of the most improved players in training camp last fall. I am trying to do the same thing this spring with Casillas out. Casillas is our man but at the same time, my teammates and Coach Doeren know that I am filling in the slack.
BN: How solid is this linebacker core right now? You have two seniors, Hodge in the middle and a bunch of solid reserves. Can you talk about the experience factor and how that is the leadership position on this team?
Jae McFadden: There’s a lot of good guys on this team. Jon and Levy play a lot of football for us and you can see out there that they are the leaders not just for the linebackers but the whole team. Elijah is coming off the knee surgery and I think he proved himself to us last season and still knows he can play better. I think his knees will hold up after the surgery and he is definitely hungry. A lot of people are going to see the real Elijah Hodge do what he’s suppose to do this year. He’s really, really hungry and he’s going to show a lot of people what he can do.
BN: A change in defense coordinator usually means there would be a transition period. It doesn’t seem that way with Coach Doeren, who seems to bring the intensity he brought last year and it seems a lot of players respond to that. How has the transition gone for you thus far?
Jae McFadden: Coach Doeren being basically the coordinator now keeps the same terminology and play calling. I guess you don’t have to learn new plays and you can just focus on going out there and playing ball because you know the defense. It’s the same as last year but he has the intensity and aggressiveness that really helps us out. It definitely gives me a boost at six o’clock in the morning to hit somebody and to have our coach out there excited helps.
I love Coach Doeren as a head coach and as a people person. I always have somebody to call at five o’clock in the morning if I needed to talk about life, family, girls or football. Coach is definitely a guy I can relate to and gives us hype for defense.
BN: It’s still very early in the process but this defense returns a lot of quality players from last year. How good do you think this defense is going to be because you guys, obviously, have very high goals to go out and win the Big Ten?
Jae McFadden: We can be real good. On Paper, we have a lot of people coming back from last year but at the same time, they don’t look like that. I think what we did last year, we were too worried about making mistakes and not going out there and playing like we know how to play. With Coach Doeren as our defensive coordinator, we’re just going out there and letting it loose and playing hard. If we go out there and play like we know how to play, it will speak for itself.
On paper, you can definitely say we could be a good defense but we have to go out and show everybody and prove to everybody that we are as good as people expect us to be.