Years before Michael Deiter caught a backward pass near the goal line and ran it in for a touchdown at Illinois on Oct. 28, the University of Wisconsin left tackle was pining for a chance to get the ball in his hands at Genoa High School in Ohio.
His platform for convincing the coaching staff to do so? Stand-out performances in what the Comets called “fat man 7-on-7.”
“While guys are working extra points or punts, the linemen are over playing shirts against skins,” former Genoa High coach Tim Spiess said. “Whoever won would get to eat first that night.
“You could always see (Deiter’s) skill. We could have lined him up at tight end 100 percent of the time and it would have just added another dimension to our offense.”
Spiess never granted Deiter’s wish by passing his way, and the sixth-ranked Badgers (9-0, 6-0) likely aren’t drawing up anymore trick plays for him as they plan to host No. 20 Iowa (6-3, 3-3) today at Camp Randall Stadium.
Even before that touchdown at Illinois, though, the junior had already developed into one of the most versatile offensive linemen in college football.
As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Deiter started UW’s first seven games at left guard before shifting to center in place of the injured Dan Voltz. The next year, Deiter made 10 starts at center and four at left guard.
With the Badgers deep on the interior of its line and thin on the edges this offseason, Deiter made a rare jump out to tackle. He has started all nine games at left tackle this season.
“It’s not easy and it’s not something that happens a lot,” Deiter said. “But I think pretty much anyone, if they had to, could play every position. I don’t think it’s necessarily super special or anything like that. … I don’t think it’s as hard as some people make it out to be.”
His teammates agree Deiter’s selling himself short.
Right tackle David Edwards said he doesn’t think anyone else in the Big Ten could play all three positions on the offensive line.
“That’s just him being modest, for sure,” left guard Jon Dietzen said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a completely different set, completely different body mechanics and everything. … I sure as heck couldn’t do it.”
Deiter has made the transition look simple because of the work he put in this offseason.
The 6-foot-6, 328-pounder took reps at left tackle during the final week of spring practice after Edwards tweaked his ankle and held up well enough for UW to move him prior to fall camp.
If Deiter could succeed at tackle, it would allow talented redshirt freshman center Tyler Biadasz to play center and give the Badgers an opportunity to field its five best linemen at the same time.
The experiment was far from a guarantee at first. Deiter made his fair share of mistakes during the first couple weeks of fall camp and often beat himself up when losing one-on-one pass rushing drills.
He was facing more speed than he’d ever had to handle, with little to no help from other linemen to stop it.
“I think from the start, he was probably a little uncomfortable being out on the edge,” UW outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “You’re going to see a lot more different types of pass rushers out there. But he has molded into a tackle, even though he might not be the typical left tackle body type.
“He’s absolutely improved. Now, in my opinion, he’s one of the better tackles in the Big Ten and the nation.”
Games brought a different challenge for Deiter. He was no longer seeing the same players and same scheme day after day.
A 3-4 outside linebacker would sometimes be replaced with a 4-3 defensive end. Teams threw different pressures his way he’d never seen.
Nine games in, Deiter’s experienced enough where he’s simply playing rather than thinking, according to offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph. He’s a tackle now, not just a center masquerading as one.
“It takes a volume of games where you’re confident in whatever you see across from you,” Rudolph said. “He’s confident in what he’s doing, and I’ve seen that these last couple weeks.”
Deiter’s first passion was hockey and the demands of travel would have made it too difficult to participate in both sports. Spiess said Deiter didn’t show up for his team’s first two-a-day practices prior to his freshman year while deciding which route he wanted to take.
After a long conversation with his father, Deiter opted to give up hockey.
“We’re not talking your little, ‘Hey, let’s go to the next city and play,’ ” Spiess said. “We’re talking about leaving the country to play. And that was a very real possibility for Michael. He had that good a skill set.”
What ultimately moved Deiter to decide against it, according to Spiess, was remaining with his close-knit class of about 50 students at Genoa.
Deiter loved his friends, and those friends gravitated towards him. Deiter didn’t agree to graduate early and enroll at UW in January of 2014 until he had assurances his senior prom would fit into his schedule — because, of course, he would be elected prom king — and he could walk at graduation with the rest of his class.
“When he sat in a room, the other kids sat around him,” Spiess said. “He was the magnet. He was kind of like the glue that held people together.”
The same thing happened at UW, and it quickly thrust Deiter into a leadership role.
Deiter admitted that he feared being embarrassed when he first moved to tackle.
How would he handle speed rushers in open space? Would he allow a bunch of sacks? Would failure lead to a dip in his NFL draft stock?
“He believes in himself, and his teammates and coaching staff believe in him a ton,” Rudolph said. “That’s a leader. That’s what a leader does.”
Deiter’s position switch played a major part in the improvement of UW’s offensive line this season. The Badgers rank 18th nationally in rushing offense and have allowed just 12 sacks in nine games, tied for the 20th fewest among FBS teams. According to Pro Football Focus, Deiter was only responsible for one of those sacks.
And he's only getting better.
“I never thought I’d play tackle at the college level,” Dieter said. “I never thought I’d have the length to play tackle. … Every week, it’s just about getting better.
“There’s no way I can say I have it down. Not yet.”