If there's one thing A.J. Fenton
can do really well, it's growing a beard with the drop of a hat.
"The man has talent," freshman linebacker Chris Borland said, "and it goes well beyond growing a beard."
One would be hard pressed to find two better all-around athletes and friends in Wisconsin's 2009 signing class than Borland, named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year for his impact on special teams and defense, and Fenton, who his teammates say look like Johnny Damon but can still pack a punch.
But while Borland has grabbed the accolades, Fenton continues to hone in on his new craft.
A highly-talented athlete from Erie (PA), Fenton did everything for McDowell Senior High, holding the school's all-time records with 4,267 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns as a running back and quarterback in addition to his time as a safety. Recruited as a linebacker, a position he had hardly played before, it's been a twofold challenge for Fenton to master only one position while preparing for the future.
"It's been a grind because you aren't used to being on the scout team and doing what other teams are doing and not what our team is doing," Fenton said. "It's not what you want to be doing, so this season has been a learning process, just learning to take your job and do it well."
Gaining weight and getting stronger every day, Fenton's time on the scout team arguably has benefited him more than it has his teammates. Getting a chance to learn an outside linebacker position he had never played before and transition his mentality from the offensive side of the ball to a defensive one, Fenton has caught on to his new techniques without having to exhaust a year of eligibility.
"Learning to practice and play for the future is definitely different, but there's isn't a lot of pressure down there," Fenton said. "You get to work your techniques, see the run plays, the pass plays and get to adjust. You have a lot of time to do it with a 16-week season."
The extra time has allowed Fenton, Borland and fellow scholarship linebacker Conor O'Neill to bond together, bounce ideas off each other and guide each other every step of the way. More importantly, Fenton has senior linebacker Jae McFadden and junior Blake Sorensen to approach about getting advice on how to play the outside linebacker position.
"It helps to watch those guys as well as talk to them," Fenton said. "You watch those guys and they are great examples of what you are supposed to be doing, how you are supposed to do it and how to make plays, especially with Chris. He makes a play all the time. You watch him, you learn how to make plays and you talk to him about what was going through your head. That's a lot of help from Chris all the way to Jae and in between."
With the linebackers only losing McFadden after the season and a healthy redshirt sophomore Mike Taylor vying to get back in the rotation, bowl preparation for Fenton has never been more important. With a pair of freshman friends around him, he'll have the support he needs.
"Obviously number one, you want to play, you want to get on the field and you want to help the team win," Fenton said. "As far as that goes, I want to be apart of what we are actually doing and game planning. I want to be in the film room, get stronger, get bigger and get faster."
A literal triple-threat athlete in high school, playing quarterback, running back and safety, freshman A.J. Fenton has spent his first season at Madison learning a whole position. After a year on the scout team, Fenton is trying to take steps towards being a grizzled veteran.
A.J. Fenton's focus on one possession starting to pay dividends