Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Smithback savors first game for UW
MADISON – Blake Smithback hasn't forgotten the combination of physical pain and mental anguish.
“I knew it was serious,” the redshirt sophomore offensive lineman from Waunakee High School said after practice Monday. “It was painful. I couldn't walk. I couldn't put weight on it.”
Smithback was describing the ugly right-knee injury he suffered on Aug. 4, 2018. After undergoing surgery and rehab, he missed the entire '18 season and all of spring spring ball. He wasn't cleared to participate fully in practice until the week of UW's Sept. 21 Big Ten opener against Michigan.
After being a spectator for the Michigan and Northwestern games, Smithback trotted onto the field with six minutes left in the third quarter last week in the 48-0 victory over Kent State. The Badgers took over at their 35 after a missed field-goal attempt and Smithback was in at center.
“When I ran out there my whole body was shaking,” Smithback said after practice Monday. “I was like: ‘Holy crap. I'm out here.' ”
The first snap went off without a hitch. On the second play, Smithback was called for an illegal snap.
“My body twitched involuntarily,” he said sheepishly. “Guys were saying: ‘Dude, you're fine. Let's play football.' ”
Smithback exhaled and freshman quarterback Graham Mertz directed an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive.
Although that score likely didn't mean much to fans, it meant the world to Smithback, who was able to play a total of 25 plays over four series.
His last game before Saturday was about 35 months earlier. That came in the fall of 2016 when he was a senior at Waunakee and the Warriors suffered a 45-20 loss to Monona Grove in the second round of the WIAA Division 2 playoffs.
“Once you take a step back and you're not playing you really become appreciative of the moments you do get in,” said Smithback, who redshirted at UW in 2017. “Running out onto that field and being in the moment, it was pretty nerve-wracking. But once you got out there it was just like playing football again.
“You come back to knowing what your job is, trusting the guys around you, staying in that moment and staying in that play. And when that play is over moving on to the next one.”
Smithback's teammates understood the difficult journey he endured before Saturday.
“A lot of people were excited to see Smitty go in,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “Because you're around it all the time and you know the work that he put in.
“I enjoy it when you have the sideline buzz that they have seeing other guys going out and getting their opportunities.”
Smithback, who initially committed to FCS program South Dakota State before choosing to walk on at UW, held a low-key celebration Saturday night. Three of his roommates are fellow linemen – starting right tackle Logan Bruss, reserve tackle Tyler Beach and starting right guard Josh Seltzner.
“We just hung out with our parents,” Smithback said. “There was a glow in the aftermath.
“I was appreciative of the fact I was able to get back out there and complete the journey I started on last August.”
From the infirmary
UW should have its full complement of defensive linemen Saturday when it hosts Michigan State.
Sophomore nose tackle Bryson Williams, who has been out since suffering a left-knee injury in practice several days after the season-opener, is no longer listed on the injury report.
However, freshman linebacker Leo Chenal is questionable this week because of a head injury.
UW officials generally do not discuss the details of specific injuries but Chenal missed the Michigan game after suffering a concussion. He was cleared to play last week against Kent State and recorded three tackles, including a sack, and a fumble recovery.
He was not removed from the game because of injury so it is unclear whether he was hurt again or symptoms from the initial injury have re-occurred.
Reserve safety Madison Cone (left leg) and fullback Mason Stokke (head) are also questionable.