Wisconsin expects Newkirk to be at natural position for Michigan
When University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema dismissed senior defensive end Jamal Cooper from the team in August and it became clear to the staff that senior end Kurt Ware was slowed significantly by off-season knee surgery, Newkirk volunteered to move from tackle to end.
“I had always wanted to be a starter and it was an opportunity,” the junior said after a recent practice. “I felt I could help the team. They really didn’t have anyone else. They needed somebody. I thought I could do a good enough job to get it done.”
Now with junior tackle Jason Chapman out for the remainder of the season with an apparent knee injury suffered in the loss at Ohio State, Newkirk is listed as the No. 1 tackle opposite senior Nick Hayden.
When Wisconsin (7-3, 3-3) tries to upset No. 13 Michigan (8-2, 6-0), the 6-foot-3, 268-pound Newkirk should be back at tackle, his more natural position.
“Do I think I could be a better tackle than an end?” Newkirk responded, when queried about his trials at end this season. “Yes. I think I could be a pretty good tackle.
“But when I signed my national letter of intent I told them I’d be here and I’d be wherever they need me to be.”
That attitude has helped Newkirk fight through a difficult and sometimes frustrating position switch. The transition began the week of the opener, when Newkirk was moved full-time to end.
“Had we moved him in the spring or if we knew we had to move him in the spring it would have helped him immensely,” defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. “Had we known that in camp, he would have had a lot of time to work. All of a sudden you get thrown into the deal and it’s hard.”
What made it more difficult was the fact that UW faced teams that run different variations of the spread offense in each of the first three games.
“You start playing those spread teams and your edge players have to do things they’ve never done,” Hankwitz said. “It’s hard to learn that on the run. It was on-the-job training.”
Newkirk acknowledged that he struggled defending the option, particularly in UW’s 31-26 loss at Illinois.
“The hardest part for me was that I put too much emphasis on being perfect and was playing too tentative, too timid,” Newkirk said. “On some plays to the outside my angles were off because I wanted to make sure nobody got outside of me.
“I never wanted to be the guy that let the defense down. I was trying to play some things too perfect.”
In addition, Newkirk never got totally comfortable rushing the passer from the edge.
“I was getting pretty decent with my hands on the inside in fall camp,” he said. “I had my pass rush where I wanted it to be.
“Then I moved out at end and it really is a whole different deal.”
As the No. 3 tackle last season, Newkirk finished with 29 tackles, including 41/2 for loss. As a 10-game starter this season, Newkirk has 30 tackles, including 41/2 for loss. He has recorded three or fewer tackles in seven games.
“In some ways it has been frustrating but in other ways it has been fun,” Newkirk said. “It has been a new challenge.”
In recent weeks, the staff has tried to use Ware at end in about 10 plays per game, so Newkirk can slide inside to give either Hayden or Chapman a breather.
With Chapman out, Newkirk should see most of his playing time on the inside, where he is more comfortable.
“When I move back in at tackle it is more free,” he said. “You don’t have to think. You just go.
“Kind of like I get to go back home. It’s like you’ve been away from home and you get to go back.”