MADISON, Wis. — The population of Howard, a speck of a town in southeast Kansas, is listed at 607 in the latest census estimate. That’s roughly 23 times smaller than the 14,000-person student section in the north end zone of Camp Randall Stadium on a football game day.
Before last year, Howard was Wisconsin defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk’s existence. He attended West Elk, a kindergarten-through-12th grade school of about 340 students, which included roughly 100 students in the high school. Even the field on which Loudermilk played football was narrower to accommodate six fewer players on his 8-man football team.
The only thing that wasn’t smaller was Loudermilk himself, a 6-foot-7 generational talent who terrorized opponents and garnered interest from college football programs across the country.
“He could manhandle anybody he faced,” West Elk High School football coach Chris Haag said. “To have that type of player, it was just amazing and pretty special.”
Loudermilk’s exceptional ability was on display for years in Howard. Now, he could be on the cusp of showcasing himself in front of a much bigger audience. He has been one of the fastest-rising underclassmen during Wisconsin’s fall camp, and the redshirt freshman has set himself up for a reserve defensive end role with the Badgers this season.
“You’ve seen it just in his growth from a freshman to a second-year guy,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Just the physical growth. Isaiahh has had a tremendous improvement. If you just would watch him, he works a ton. I think that he’s put himself in position to give himself opportunities.”
When Loudermilk arrived at Wisconsin, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He was such a gifted athlete in high school that things came naturally to him. He earned first-team all-state in basketball as a junior and averaged 19.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.5 blocks per game. In 8-man football, Loudermilk played just about every position on the field except quarterback, Haag said.
On offense, he took snaps at left guard, right guard, tight end and in the backfield and caught 5 touchdown passes as a senior. Opposing teams were so fearful of Loudermilk’s dominance as a defensive end that they continually ran plays to the other side of the field. Eventually, Haag stuck Loudermilk at nose guard so offenses couldn’t try to run away from him. He finished his senior season with 97 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 interceptions to earn first-team all-state in 8-man football.
But 11-man football, against the caliber of players at Wisconsin, would be different. Loudermilk quickly discovered there was far less open space available for him on the field and far more pounding. In 8-man football, he said, all his matchups were 1-on-1. At Wisconsin, he discovered he would have to shed blocks from two or even three players on occasion.
“Coming in, I can tell you I was nervous,” Loudermilk said. “New game, new place, new everything. But when I got here and I actually started playing, I didn’t really feel out of place or anything like that. I just felt like any new freshman coming in would feel. You’ve got the jitters. You still have to learn the playbook. But the extra six men on the field, I didn’t really even notice to start off with. I still don’t notice it. On the D-line, all I see is the linemen pretty much. It wasn’t really like a big transition.”
Loudermilk’s athleticism and size have proved to be two attributes even Wisconsin’s first-team offense hasn’t always been able to contain. He is more nimble than most football players his frame, which has allowed him to thrive in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. Badgers inside linebacker Ryan Connelly noted Loudermilk had begun to “wreak havoc on pretty much anyone he goes against.”
Loudermilk stands 6-7 and weighs 306 pounds, which is a combination rarely seen out of a defensive end. Consider the average height and weight of Wisconsin’s top three defensive ends, Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and Conor Sheehy, is 6-4 and 280 pounds.
“I think it’s a pretty big advantage for me, especially when I can get my arms locked out,” Loudermilk said. “Usually when I can do that, I have the advantage over most O-linemen, if I can get that extension.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, even Loudermilk’s eating habits are outsized. His roommate, inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas, recalled one instance in which he bought 18 eggs to make for his breakfasts over the coming week. When Maskalunas woke up and went to the refrigerator two days later, he discovered all of his eggs were gone. Loudermilk had eaten every one of them.
“That just kind of gives you a sense of how much this guy eats and what kind of calorie count he’s on,” Maskalunas said. “Lining up out there and seeing a guy like that get down in a stance in front of you, you know you’re going to be protected a little bit more.”
Wisconsin inside linebacker Arrington Farrar joked that Loudermilk came from the same town as the cartoon character Courage the Cowardly Dog. The joke? That character resides in the fictional town of Nowhere, Kansas.
But there’s no question Loudermilk’s ability has put him on the map. Farrar cited one play during fall camp in which Loudermilk used his outstretched arms to intercept a screen pass and return it for a touchdown. Farrar was in position to make a play in the backfield before he looked up and saw Loudermilk chugging into the end zone.
“If he extends into a guard or a tackle, he’s got the reach on him,” Farrar said. “It’s not even fair for those guys sometimes. He can just do stuff that other people can’t because he has the length. He’s got to use that to his advantage, and that’s what he’s been doing. He’s been making plays.”
Haag noted Loudermilk was always big for his age, but it took time before he developed into his body. He stood 6-6 and weighed 240 pounds at the end of his junior year of high school. When he returned for his senior season of football in the fall, Loudermilk weighed in at 285 pounds.
Clearly, Loudermilk possesses a big game to match the big frame. And his potential has folks from Madison to Howard eager to see what he’ll do with it next.
“There’s a lot more Badger fans in this part of the state of Kansas than there ever was before, so we hope to continue that,” Haag said. “It’s just amazing how he looks like now. I’m thinking about what he’s going to look like a couple years from now.”
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