Following every Wisconsin football practice and after each game, a swarm of reporters gather around a 6-foot-4, 338-pound mass of man, his face cloaked by a mammoth beard.
Behind the cameras and notepads stands Travis Frederick, the player who, more than any other, acts as the Badgers’ spokesperson, the go-to man for intelligent and thoughtful responses to any reporter’s questions. But he also serves as the behind-the-scenes director on the field and is responsible for making the pre-snap adjustments along the line based on the looks he sees from the opposing defense.
And it is precisely his nuanced understanding of the game that separates him from his colleagues on either side of the offensive line.
“The center’s the quarterback of the offensive line, so everything goes through him,” redshirt sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “Whatever he says is final, and he rarely makes a bad call.”
Now in his third season in a starting role for Wisconsin, his second as the year-long starter, Frederick’s attention to detail is best on display during film sessions with the rest of his compatriots in the trenches every Tuesday and Wednesday. Havenstein says he picks up on the slightest changes from opposing lineman – a different hand on the ground, for example – to predict the opposing defense’s plan of attack.
After graduating a semester early from Big Foot High School in Sharon, Wis., Frederick began meticulously studying the playbook that spring and became the first true freshman to start along the offensive line in a season-opener in UW history. Joining the team before he was even 18, he still remembers having to fax compliance forms home for his parents to sign because he was not yet a legal adult.
Three years later, the man who anchors the Badgers’ offensive line alongside left tackle Ricky Wagner says jumping in at left guard and center in his first year has directed his career since.
“I can’t even describe how good [the early experience] was for me, in a couple different ways,” he said. “One – gaining that experience; two – playing with some of the best off linemen that we’ve had here in a long time; three – by having that playing experience, knowing what it was like, and then [redshirting] the next year, just really built a hunger in me.”
Learning under the tutelage of Bill Nagy and John Moffitt – two linemen who are both in the NFL – Frederick is now tasked with guiding the players likened to a younger version of himself. While he calls freshman lineman Dan Voltz his “prot?g?,” Frederick has also had to play the role of adviser when he landed at the forefront of Wisconsin’s quarterback shuffle.
His experience faced its first test in quarterback Joel Stave’s second career start in the harshest of environments – Nebraska’s ear-jarring Memorial Stadium.
“We knew it was going to be a big game, it was going to be loud and people asked, ‘how’s [Stave] going to deal with that,'” Frederick said. “You just sit down and you talk with him and you say, ‘Listen, it’s no different, it’s going to be loud, you’re going to have to yell a little louder, but it really is no different.'”
The face of an offensive line that failed to meet expectations early in the season and continued to show lingering issues in surrendering a season-high five sacks against Michigan State, Frederick is the first to acknowledge when his unit has underperformed.
But he may also be the most apt at understanding what issues need to be fixed. Offensive line coach Bart Miller describes his starting center as “tremendously intelligent,” something he said alone separates Frederick from the competition.
“Him and I will talk quite a bit,” Miller said. “We’ve got a good thing going in terms of going over stuff together – pressures and things like that. I talk to him and tell him directions to give those guys when they’re out there. It is like having a second [coach], a player-coach out there.”
It comes as little surprise, then, that during a recent “Ask the Badgers” segment at Camp Randall, nearly every player responded with Frederick’s name as the teammate who would be most likely to serve as president.
Though Miller points to his voracious appetite for breaking down film, Frederick does not exactly shift into cruise control when he leaves Camp Randall. Instead, he walks just a block north on Randall Avenue to pursue a dual degree in computer science and computer engineering.
Frederick says the pairing has made for a tremendous challenge, but one that has forced him to maximize his time in a way that still leaves him ready to take the field every Saturday.
“He’s obviously a brainiac,” Frederick’s roommate and starting left guard Ryan Groy said. “It’s something I make fun of him a lot for, though it’s something to be proud of. It’s great having him as a center because he knows those kinds of things – you tell him something once, and he’s going to remember it forever.”
Those skills in the classroom may be put on hold for now, however, as most NFL draft websites projected Frederick as a second round pick before the season began, if he does decide to skip out on his senior year.
As the final stretch of the season beckons, Frederick will likely snap the ball to the Badgers’ third starting quarterback of the year if Curt Phillips gets the start against Indiana as expected.
But still remaining constant in a season of changes, Frederick said his distinguished beard has no plans of going anywhere.
“We’ll definitely keep if through November, and then we’ll see where we’re going,” he said with a wide grin.