MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin outside linebackers coach Matt Mitchell and tight ends coach Nate Letton first met with reporters in their new roles Monday. Here are some key takeaways from her session with reporters:
Connections bring buses to Wisconsin
Mitchell has been a highly successful Division II Grand Valley State head coach over the past 13 seasons, leading his program to a 117-31 record (.790 win ratio) with seven playoff finishes and two national semifinal appearances. Of course, that kind of success could have led to other opportunities – jobs as a head coach at FCS and as an assistant coach at FBS – but Mitchell said he stayed there because those positions weren’t the right choice.
Mitchell said three factors contributed to his final departure from Grand Valley State and making the jump to Wisconsin: his respect for the school and football program, his relationship with Badgers defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, and the opportunity to break into a major as a coach Program to personally develop championship-level expectations.
“This place has a chance to compete first for the Big Ten West championships and the Big Ten championships and hopefully beyond,” Mitchell said. “So far I can see from the coaching staff and the players that you have a lot of strong people here. Sometimes there are adversities and things don’t go well. They don’t want to be surrounded by people of low character. Then it gets bad.”
Tressel and Mitchell were roommates and football teammates at Cornell College in Iowa before serving as assistants at Wartburg College from 1998 to 2001 to begin their coaching careers. Although Mitchell never worked for Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell, Mitchell said he was impressed by the winning culture Fickell created as a coach at Ohio State and Cincinnati.
Letton also began his coaching career in the Division III ranks. From 2015 to 2019 he was an assistant coach at his alma mater, Center College in Danville, Kentucky. Letton was promoted to tight ends coach at Cincinnati last season.
He was initially hired in Wisconsin as a quality control coach supporting tight ends coach Gino Guidugli and special teams. But when Guidugli moved to Notre Dame last month to coach quarterbacks, Letton took Guidugli’s place as tight ends coach. Letton said his start at a lower school provided him with invaluable tools.
“I was the recruitment coordinator, I was the academic, you do the janitorial work right before official visits,” he said. “You do a lot of things, which helps you to learn spontaneously. That’s actually this job. When there’s a job to do, you don’t look around to see who’s going to do it. You just do it and get the job done.”
Establishment of dedicated teams
In addition to Mitchell’s role as outside linebacker coach, he will serve as special teams coordinator. It’s a position Mitchell is very familiar with, since he said he managed all six of Grand Valley State’s special teams during his last six seasons there. But Mitchell said Wisconsin won’t be “just a one-man show,” noting that Fickell would be heavily involved.
Letton said Fickell will be the main man on the punt and kickoff units. Other trainers take care of the recovery units. All coaches except offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Phil Longo, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and defensive line coach Greg Scruggs would be involved in some aspect of special teams or drills. Letton said Fickell added Spencer Rymiszewski as an analyst to replace Letton and that Rymiszewski would also help with special teams. Rymiszewski was a graduate assistant under Fickell in Cincinnati and spent last season with the New York Giants.
Mitchell said the focus will be on making sure Wisconsin’s special teams have a significant impact and that Fickell’s philosophy is to have starters play against special teams rather than completely filling teams with reserves.
“If that’s the head coach’s philosophical approach, that starters are involved and that’s set from day one, it kind of gives a sense of urgency,” Mitchell said. “We did some drills with special teams. There is no depth map. We’re really pushing the guys, even the guys who’ve played here in Wisconsin, to the front of the lines.”
Why Devon Spalding sprinted to Wisconsin to be his new running backs coach
Letton said junior Riley Nowakowski, who played full-back last season, has joined the tight ends this offseason. The change comes as no surprise as Wisconsin is moving away from using full-backs with a new scheme under Longo. According to Pro Football Focus, Nowakowski played 120 offensive snaps last season, 118 of which lined up with him in the backfield or as a blocker.
Nowakowski came into 2020 as an outside linebacker before switching to fullback. He played tight end last spring due to a lack of depth. Wisconsin’s key fullback of last season, Jackson Acker, will have an opportunity to compete for the No. 3 running back this spring behind Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi.
Letton said spring training would be important for him to define the roles for his tight ends as they “rewire” the way they run stretches and adapt to the freedom brought by Longo’s offense and pace is created. One close end that could have a big impact is Clay Cundiff, who sustained a season-ending leg fracture against Ohio State in September. Letton said he hopes Cundiff can take part in some stretches without defenders later this spring.
Ranking of Wisconsin position groups entering Luke Fickell’s first spring
Aaron Witt is still struggling with injuries
No player on the Wisconsin roster has had a longer injury layoff than junior outside linebacker Aaron Witt, who last appeared in a game during the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to close out the 2020 season. Mitchell said Witt is “out for the moment” and there are still questions about when he can return.
“I don’t know anything about spring,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know if we’ll get to the point where he’ll be able to take on repeats and make contact in the spring. We’ll see how things go. I am very impressed with Aaron’s knowledge of the game. He’s a really smart footballer and a guy you’re hoping will come back because the one year he’s played has had some impact. But it has to be determined somehow.”
Playing as a true freshman in five games, Witt recorded a sack, a forced fumble and two tackles in the bowl game for the loss to Wake Forest. Witt captivated former Badgers outside linebackers coach Bobby April because of his unique blend of height at 6ft 6 and athleticism. But Witt has missed the last two seasons with a right leg injury.
Mitchell said CJ Goetz, TJ Bollers and Jeff Pietrowski, transfer from Michigan State, played outside linebackers on the border side. Goetz started all 13 games last season and finished with 62 tackles and eight lost tackles. Mitchell said Bollers is a “very physical player” who’s off to a great start and Pietrowski is still learning how to take cover after spending some time on the defensive line at Michigan State.
With Nick Herbig in the NFL, there’s a big hole to fill. Darryl Peterson and Kaden Johnson will be among those working on the field side, with Peterson poised for a potential big jump in production. Peterson started in three games last season, including in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in place of Herbig.
“He’s approaching things like a pro at the moment in terms of attention to detail and has just worked extremely hard to try and take the lead,” Mitchell said.
(Top photo by Matt Mitchell: Jesse Temple / the athlete)