CHARLESTON — Joe Caputo already made a name for himself before he even took his first snap for the Eastern Illinois University football team, but it wasn't because of his play on the field. Caputo shares his name with a fictional character from the popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Joe Caputo is the name of the prison warden on the show and his role throughout the series has grown the past few seasons.
"I've watched the first two seasons now and I would say once a week I get it from somebody in one of my classes, especially now that classes have started," Caputo said. "I kind of like it. It's cool."
Now Caputo is hoping to make his own name for himself. After redshirting his freshman year, Caputo started to see time on the field as a backup to linebacker Seth McDonald. Now that McDonald graduated, Caputo is stepping into a linebacker role that's been a key to EIU's defense success since Kim Dameron has been a coach.
"I don't want to be known as the prison guard guy," Caputo said. "I would rather be known as a middle linebacker on the football team."
There were no bumps for Caputo in his first game as the starting middle linebacker for EIU. The redshirt sophomore had five tackles, including one for a loss, in the 22-20 win over Indiana State last Thursday. Caputo's family was on hand to watch his first-ever start in college.
For the last two years, Caputo had almost the perfect person to learn the role from, starting middle linebacker Seth McDonald, who led EIU in tackles with 99 last season. As a senior, McDonald earned All-OVC honors. Caputo spent the last two seasons studying what McDonald did on the field. Plus he watched Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is currently with the Philadelphia Eagles, his freshman season.
Last season Caputo played in every game as a backup to McDonald and as a special teams player. He also saw a good amount of time with the No. 1 defense in practice because McDonald dealt with some injuries here and there. All of those factors helped prepare Caputo for a starting role this season.
"My first two years here, being behind Seth, an all-conference linebacker, and learning from Kamu, an NFL linebacker, I was able to develop and learn behind them and see what needs to be done in order to be a successful linebacker," Caputo said. "Being behind them was the biggest thing. Even in practice, I ran with the first team a lot, so I was used to playing at that speed and with those guys. When I was in the game, I felt confident."
Caputo still keeps in contact with McDonald on a consistent basis.
The biggest thing Caputo had to get used to was the play-calling. McDonald called the plays and lined up the defense last season, and those same responsibilities fell on Caputo this year.
"It took some time to pick up on everything, but this is my third year in the system, so everything is starting to click now," Caputo said. "Every day I am still improving and working on my mistakes. Everybody has their job and it's up to everybody to do their job. I feel like if I do make a mistake, it exposes the defense. My goal is to do my job the best that I can and hopefully everything falls into place."
But Caputo is used to processing a lot of information. Caputo is a finance and accounting major and currently holds a 3.92 grade-point average.
"Plan B is just as important to me as Plan A," Caputo said. "School is very important to me. I like going to school and learning new things. I treat it like it is football. School's been very helpful on the field with learning the system quickly and reading offenses."
Dameron said Caputo is a smart player on and off the field.
"He is learning fast and he takes what he learns out in the practice and last year it translated on the field pretty well," Dameron said. "Now it's a little more pressure on him because he's the guy. Joe is a really smart kid, makes good grades and is very conscientious about everything that he does. We are glad that we have him. He's a pretty good football player."
The middle linebacker spot has been a strong point of EIU's defense for a number of years. Before McDonald, there was Adam Gristick, who is now an assistant coach at Syracuse under former EIU head coach Dino Babers. While Caputo looks up to those players, he's just trying to be himself on the field instead of McDonald or Gristick.
"We all have our different identities and I want to be as good as them, but the only thing I can do is control what I can control," Caputo said. "Kind of not worry about what they've done in the past and build every day for myself."