Eli Alt started his career with the UW-La Crosse football team as a quarterback, even though his time with that group was short-lived.
A dual-threat in high school, he piled up 3,594 total yards and 53 total touchdowns his senior year while guiding River Valley to the WIAA Division 4 state championship game. After graduating in the spring of 2017, he spent a semester at Division II Upper Iowa, where he redshirted.
Alt ultimately transferred to UW-L and joined the Eagles for spring camp in 2018 — still a quarterback.
But it only took about five practices for him to realize he fit better in the defensive backfield, so he made the switch.
“They made the right choice in moving him,” senior safety Trevar Helland said.
Despite his gaudy offensive numbers in high school, it certainly appears so.
After two seasons as UW-L’s nickelback, Alt has started all four games this year alongside Helland at safety, where the 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior now dissects offenses instead of leading them.
“Just felt like I was more confident on the defensive side,” Alt said. “... I guess playing safety is pretty similar to QB, you know, it’s kind of the eyes of the field.”
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Alt is second on the team in tackles with 23 — including 13 solos — to go along with a team-high two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Over the past two games, he’s recorded 17 tackles and all of his turnovers, and he’ll look to continue that trend at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Eagles — who are ranked 20th by the AFCA — host No. 6 UW-Oshkosh.
“Biggest change (with Alt) is just the comfort level with everything,” said UW-L head coach Matt Janus, whose team is 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the WIAC. “Now he knows our base playbook. Like, he probably knows it better than I do at this point. I’m being serious. …
“He knows exactly where his eyes go. Whatever formation, whatever motion you give, he knows what to do.”
Alt said the transition from quarterback to defensive back was fairly smooth, thanks in part to his knowledge of how offenses operate. A background in wrestling — he won a WIAA Division 2 state title at 170 pounds in 2017 — helped with tackling, too.
His biggest hurdle was footwork and technique — he didn’t play much defense in high school — though Janus now views that as one of Alt’s greatest strengths.
“He’s so steady. He’s so confident in what he does,” Janus said. “If you ever watch his technique as just a safety, his steps are the same every play, his eyes (are the same). He’s just so disciplined in his technique, and he’s never rushed.
“His backpedal never goes to crap because all of a sudden he’s getting a vertical push from a wide receiver. It is the same tempo, it is the same steady confidence with that guy all the time.”
Alt played in nine games and had 11 tackles in 2018 before playing in all 10 games in 2019 and recording 12 tackles. Not only did his time as the nickelback give him valuable on-field experience, it allowed him to learn firsthand from Pete Kissling and Noah Schober.
“They really set the tone for how a La Crosse safety should play, so (I’m) just trying to go out there and emulate that each and every week,” Alt said. “... Super physical, and they were just confident out on the field. And I feel like that leads to success.”
That confidence started to click for Alt in the Eagles’ 42-21 win at Dakota State (S.D.) in the season opener, and it’s shown in the past two games.
He had a career-high 11 tackles against Division II Grand Valley State (Mich.) to go along with his first forced turnovers of his career. Alt made Lakers quarterback Cade Peterson pay for throwing into double coverage with an interception in the first quarter, and he forced and recovered a fumble on GVSU’s next offensive snap.
He followed that performance by tallying six tackles and another interception in last week’s 45-23 victory at UW-River Falls.
“We do segments based on ball disruption, you know, so trying to create those turnovers,” Alt said. “I really think it shows on Saturdays when we go out there and we’re attacking the ball and just trying to create turnovers.”
Alt said coverage assignments have felt more natural to him — again, he has experience in the passing game — as he’s worked to improve his run fits.
But he’s shown a knack for that, too, as evidenced by his forced fumble, and Helland said he’s noticed his counterpart become more physical.
“He’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger from a weight room perspective, from a weight room standpoint,” Helland said. “But again, I think it’s just been a long time coming for him.”
UW-L will likely need Alt to contribute both against the pass and the run against UW-Oshkosh.
The Titans (3-0, 1-0) are averaging 30.3 points per game and are extremely balanced offensively in terms of yardage, with 590 rushing yards and 589 passing yards through three games.
Sophomore quarterback Kobe Berghammer is effective through the air — he’s completed 60% of his passes for those 589 yards and five touchdowns against two interceptions — though UW-Oshkosh has 45 more rushing attempts than passing attempts (118 to 73).
Berghammer has added 33 carries for 163 yards and three scores, while sophomore running back Peter MacCudden leads the team with 208 rushing yards.
“I would say they have a few pretty explosive playmakers,” Alt said. “Good quarterback, running back, pretty good receiver. I really think it just comes down to us being physical and just letting them know we’re here to play.”
Eric Lee can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @ByEricLee