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Rafael Gaglianone slowly working back into form for Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone can laugh at the idea that he spent the first few weeks of spring practice scaling down his workload. Yes, specialists often bear the brunt of jokes about their perceived lack of physical exertion. But Gaglianone also understood that in order to move forward from a season-ending back injury a year ago, he needed to prepare slowly and efficiently.

"In reality, it's kind of behind-the-scenes work," Gaglianone said. "It doesn't matter to us if we get that label of slackers because we know that if we put in the work, when it comes game time, they're going to be willing to trust us, and that's all that really matters for us."

Although Gaglianone may hear an occasional wisecrack, it's no joke how valuable his health will be to the Badgers next season. Gaglianone has established himself as one of the best kickers to come through Wisconsin. He opened his freshman season in 2014 by drilling a 51-yard field goal against LSU, showcasing his range in a nationally televised game. Later that season, he converted 14 consecutive field goal attempts, which matched Vitaly Pisetsky (1999) for the longest such streak in school history. Already, his three game-winning field goals have established a new school record.

Gaglianone's consistency and leg strength provide Wisconsin with a weapon few opponents can match. And given the way the Badgers rarely take themselves out of games, his presence could make the difference in one-possession contests as Wisconsin pushes toward a repeat Big Ten West championship.

Badgers coach Paul Chryst noted Gaglianone wasn't yet in game shape, but he expressed optimism about what his kicker can give the team this fall.

"He feels good, and therefore I feel good that way with his health," Chryst said. "Certainly a good kicker is huge for your team. I thought last year he was performing at a high level, and he's got to come back and have that. And still there's things he can do to continue to get better. But a good Raf is really good for this team."

Last season, Gaglianone started the year on fire after dedicating himself to fitness and losing 26 offseason pounds. He made all three of his field goal attempts in the opener against LSU, including a 47-yard game winner. His performance helped Wisconsin defeat a top-five nonconference opponent in the regular season for the first time since 1974. But Gaglianone felt back pain in the days leading up to Wisconsin's Week 3 game against Georgia State. He uncharacteristically missed a 30-yard field goal and was seen noticeably limping after making a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

"Maybe I shouldn't have played that game and I should've just stayed on the bench," Gaglianone said. "But it was just tough to give up on something that you worked so hard for. Definitely I look back at that miss and I see the swing wasn't there. The leg wasn't working quite the same way. So I knew at that point in that game I wasn't really myself."

Gaglianone sat out the following week against Michigan State, but his condition only worsened. He had suffered a herniated disc, which created "excruciating pain." As a result, he opted for season-ending surgery, finishing the year 7 for 8 on field goal tries and 10 of 10 on extra point attempts.

"It was all going well, and I felt really good with everything and that happened and it's almost a shock," Gaglianone said. "It's the last thing that you're expecting when you're going from the possible best season of your life to it getting cut short and watching the whole rest of the season."

Last fall was not the first time Gaglianone dealt with back pain while at Wisconsin. The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder from Sao Paulo, Brazil, did not participate in spring practice two years ago because of back issues. Gaglianone's lack of offseason weight training then affected his leg strength in 2015. He made 18 of 27 field goal tries (66.7 percent) -- a mild disappointment considering his stellar freshman campaign.

This spring, Gaglianone has steadily ramped up his training. He said he felt healthy and already was making 55-yard field goals in Wisconsin's indoor practice facility. The most significant hindrance, he said, was regaining trust in himself that putting pressure on his back wouldn't cause another injury. He also is trying to find confidence and a rhythm in the three-step operation with the long snapper, holder and kicker.

Because Gaglianone appeared only in three games last season, he was able to apply for a medical hardship waver with the NCAA and expects to earn another year of competition, which would make him a redshirt junior in the fall. Gaglianone believed he was on a trajectory toward being among the best kickers in the Big Ten, if not the country. Now, he's trying to reclaim his form and spend the next two seasons proving why he can again be a reliable kicking force.

"As bad as the situation was, it kind of worked out great," Gaglianone said. "It sucks to be hurt during the season, but at least it's the best in terms of getting back healthy for that next season. Because you have that whole time to take it easy and be careful in the rehab and then slowly start pushing your buttons, and that's what we've done this spring. We didn't all of a sudden start trying to hit 50 yarders. We start with the PATs. I'm feeling like I'm sort of myself again."