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Jake Kocorowski | December 19, 2013

Walk-On Wisconsin

How a Big Ten power makes the most out of its least-heralded prospects

On Sept. 28, the Wisconsin Badgers arrived at Ohio Stadium to engage the Ohio State Buckeyes in an early battle for positioning in the Big Ten Leaders Division. One of the key matchups that Saturday evening featured Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby covering Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.

Roby, a junior, was named a first-team All-American by ESPN and second-team by the Associated Press in 2012. The Buckeyes' talent-laden defense was widely expected to stymie a Badgers passing game missing injured senior tight end Jacob Pedersen, leaving Abbrederis as the only consistent receiving threat available for sophomore quarterback Joel Stave.

That script was quickly flipped, however, once Wisconsin's passing attack flourished and kept the game tight. Abbrederis torched Roby and the Buckeyes' secondary with a career-high 207 receiving yards on 10 catches, plus a touchdown. Stave threw for almost 300 yards and brought the Badgers back within one score in the final quarter.

The Buckeyes' defense shut down, of all things, Wisconsin's trademark rushing attack with James White and Melvin Gordon, holding the Badgers to 104 rushing yards, the ultimate difference in a 31-24 OSU victory. But both Stave and Abbrederis, former walk-ons overlooked and under-recruited by many schools, left a mark on that game and the 2013 Wisconsin team.

Walk-ons at Wisconsin have written themselves into Badgers lore while helping the program build itself into a nationally-recognized athletic institution. A large wall near the home locker room in Camp Randall Stadium traces the evolution of the university's walk-on program since Barry Alvarez began his tenure as head coach in 1990. It tells the stories of 141 letterwinners and 11 captains who came to play at Wisconsin without a scholarship and played vital roles in leading the program to six Rose Bowl appearances and Big Ten titles in the last 24 seasons. Their influences on the school are undeniable, and their contributions are held in the utmost regard by a Big Ten power primed for unprecedented success in the upcoming College Football Playoff era.

Many names on that locker room wall are of the household variety, such as current Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt or the All-Big Ten receiver Abbrederis. Others, like long snapper Kyle Wojta or fullback Bill Rentmeester, have lesser-known stories even the average Badgers fan might be unfamiliar with.

One hundred forty-one walk-ons have earned letters; 72 were awarded scholarships and 15 reached the NFL. But as former walk-on safety Jim Leonhard states, each one warrants respect regardless of when their playing days ended.

"There's been so many great ones that have had the amazing numbers and careers, but you look past those and every single year there's another handful that graduate that really make up what that program is all about," said Leonhard, arguably one of the greatest walk-on stories in Wisconsin football history and who has played for nearly a decade in the NFL.

Each athlete has his own story. Each situation -- positions on the field, individual recruiting processes, tuition payments -- varies from one to the next. Some are preferred walk-ons able to come to camp with the rest of the team, essentially assured a roster spot. Others start when the fall semester begins.

Yet head coach Gary Andersen, hired in December 2012 to replace Bret Bielema, does not like the term "preferred" when talking about walk-ons. Regardless of their scholarship status, all athletes receive the same treatment -- the same gear, tutors and opportunities. "Just somebody else is paying for their school," Andersen says.

Paying their way through college is the first common bond between walk-ons. Like any other student not on an athletic scholarship, a variety of options are available. Some, like current Seattle Seahawks safety Chris Maragos, were fortunate to have their families take care of most of the expenses.

"My parents were absolutely phenomenal," Maragos said. "They footed pretty much everything when I was in college just to help me pursue my dreams and to give me every advantage that I could get to focus on playing football and to pursue my dreams."

"It built character in me, it built good work ethic."

Others, like Stave, received some help but worked to save up and prepare for the financial grind ahead. Stave worked a lot in high school in his hometown of Greenfield, Wis., and along with saving up money from birthday funds and gifts from grandparents, he's almost paid off all the loans he accrued from three semesters as a walk-on, an impressive feat considering the costs of college life.

Current graduate assistant and former receiver Luke Swan also received some assistance from his parents but was responsible for the rest. He juggled working jobs in construction and painting to make ends meet. It was exhausting for the young wide receiver from Fennimore, Wis., but Swan doesn't regret what he learned from the experience.

"It built character in me, it built good work ethic," he said.

"The opportunities, though, definitely outweighed all the costs that kind of went with it."

The recruiting interest from particular universities was also similar. Some had looks from Football Bowl Subdivision programs from the Mid-American Conference, as well as universities in the Football Championship Subdivision like the Dakotas and Illinois State. Many received offers from Division II and III colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including Abbrederis and defensive backs coach and recruiting guru Ben Strickland, the latter a former walk-on from Brookfield Central High School, the same school that produced his former teammate and Cleveland Browns All-Pro Joe Thomas. It was either Wisconsin or a Division III school for Strickland, and he chose to chase his dream of playing in the Big Ten. As he recruits high school athletes in the Badger State, the story sounds all too familiar.

"I think you ask a lot of the walk-on kids, and that's essentially the story," Strickland said.

"I didn't want to have any regrets, and I know a lot of kids that do walk on, same way. They don't want to have any regrets. They give their dreams a shot."

A few walk-ons initially committed to other schools but found their way to Madison. Watt was an all-state tight end out of Pewaukee, Wis., and committed to Central Michigan before eventually landing at Wisconsin. Senior tight end Brock DeCicco played at Pittsburgh before transferring after his redshirt freshman year to be a Badger. Maragos walked on to Western Michigan and started eight games at wide receiver as a redshirt freshman, but his relationship with the Broncos' coaching staff soured. After initially being told he'd be put on scholarship if he contributed and landing on the two-deep, the coaches said they wanted to see more out of him.

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"At that point, it's kind of one of those deals like I couldn't really play under somebody I couldn't trust, and so I decided to transfer," Maragos said.

His brother, Troy -- who donned the Bucky Badger mascot costume while at UW -- knew Swan from Wisconsin's chapter of the Campus Crusades for Christ organization. After an initial conversation with Swan via Facebook and conversations with the coaching staff, he felt comfortable giving up a year of eligibility to transfer to UW.

"For me, knowing the tradition of the walk-ons at Wisconsin, I knew they were gonna get a fair shake, and also coach Bielema was a walk-on at Iowa," Maragos said. "So I knew that I would have the opportunity, if I performed, to play and to earn a scholarship based on all those things."

Strickland has also seen many walk-ons come to Wisconsin as two- or three-sport athletes, some that were even recruited for sports besides football. Fullback Bradie Ewing debated between basketball and football up until the end of his sophomore year at Richland Center High School. Abbrederis and former wide receiver Paul Hubbard were heavily sought after for their track and field prowess. Hubbard, who verbally committed to Nebraska before flipping to Wisconsin, was the Colorado state record holder in the triple jump and No. 1 triple jumper in his age group in 2003.

Jason Doering, a safety and captain on the Rose Bowl-champion 1998 and 1999 Wisconsin teams, planned to play baseball in junior college before being noticed by his peers in the annual state high school football game. Contact was made by the Wisconsin coaches after recruits Ross Kolodziej and Josh Dickerson recommended Doering. It was his mother that pushed Doering to put his baseball career on hold and attend a four-year university.

"I just figured, OK, I'll go give it a shot," said Doering, who had to negotiate with the coaches to walk on at the start of camp, rather than join the team at the start of the school year. "If it doesn't work out for that year, I lost a year of baseball and I can still go back and play for two years. It's not going to hurt me that much, so I just gave it a shot."

Strickland credits the high school players who participated in multiple sports year-round as central to the success of the walk-on program, as those who had the advantage of competing in multiple sports could then focus on one and flourish.

"Guys that compete all year long in three sports know how to compete all year long even when it's only one sport," Strickland said.

"[With] training, mindset, guys continue to grow and develop as they go through the weight program and the offseason and all that kind of stuff."

Without any guarantees from the coaches who recruited them, walk-ons craved a fair chance to showcase their abilities and earn that scholarship. It's what former head coach Bret Bielema, now at Arkansas after seven years at Wisconsin, described as an "extra heartbeat," a term passed down from his mentors in Alvarez and former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry.

"That extra heartbeat, it's somebody that can go a little bit harder than the other guy, and obviously if you can get it with a scholarship player, you got something special," Bielema said. "All of the walk-ons that we saw, they all possessed that ability.

"They just kind of went a little bit harder and were a little bit more about everything that they did."

Finding diamonds in the rough is something Alvarez has been known for throughout his tenure at Wisconsin. Perhaps, then, it isn't entirely coincidental that his two head coaching hires as Director of Athletics have been two former walk-ons.

★★★

Alvarez came to Wisconsin in 1990 after serving as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He inherited a UW program in shambles, one that had won only six games in the previous three seasons under Don Morton. Wisconsin's athletic department in general was suffering, as Chancellor Donna Shalala hired then-Director of Athletics Pat Richter in 1989 to help turn around a department $2.1 million in debt.

Alvarez has credited the blueprint of his success to his alma mater, Nebraska, where he played linebacker and graduated in 1969.

"Almost everything we did at Wisconsin, we stole from Nebraska, including the fabled walk-on program.

"Almost everything we did at Wisconsin, we stole from Nebraska, including the fabled walk-on program."

"We analyzed what we could do and what we could consistently have, and then we implemented our strategy. First, we kept the best in-state kids at home. Then we recruited the best players we could recruit to be a very physical, run-oriented team. And, finally, when we realized no one in the Big Ten was doing what Nebraska was doing with walk-ons, we went after it."

Alvarez led Wisconsin to a 10-1-1 record in the 1993 season and a win over UCLA in the 1994 Rose Bowl. His teams won three Rose Bowls in his 16 seasons as head coach, and many walk-ons, including Doering and former tackle Joe Panos, served as captains.

Successful on the field, Alvarez started adopting more administrative duties in 2000, becoming associate athletic director. He took over for Richter as director of athletics in 2004, juggling that with his head coach duties until he retired from coaching after the 2005 season. He needed to find a successor to lead the program he rebuilt, and found one in former Iowa walk-on Bret Bielema.

Bielema was hired before the 2004 season, coming on after serving as co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2002 and 2003. He knew about the tradition and influence of Wisconsin's walk-ons but saw it firsthand in players like Leonhard.

Himself a walk-on at Iowa in 1989, Bielema played on special teams and worked his way up the depth chart, starting 11 games in his final two seasons. Head coach Hayden Fry awarded him a scholarship after his first year, and Bielema was named a captain in 1992.

At Wisconsin, that walk-on heritage manifested itself in recruiting. Bielema looked for "undersized, under-recruited and under-developed" athletes to help fill areas of need where other recruits may not have panned out.

"Well, I think that one of the common things that coach Alvarez and I used to always talk about was you'd use walk-ons as kind of erasers," Bielema said. "They were guys that would erase recruiting mistakes."

Bielema hoped to take what Alvarez started, both in the program's record and the tradition of its walk-ons, and elevate everything. He coached his players to three consecutive Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances from 2010-12. Throughout his tenure, there were not only stellar scholarship players like Thomas, Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, but also a healthy contingent of walk-ons like Strickland and Swan, who became team captains in 2007. Bielema also developed under-the-radar players like Watt, Ethan Hemer, Ethan Armstrong and Abbrederis, all of whom played pivotal roles in his last three seasons.

Bielema hoped to take what Alvarez started and elevate everything

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"From a coaching staff," Bielema said, "we really took a lot of pride in bringing in walk-ons and establishing a mentality in them of what they're going to build themselves into and get the big picture one, two, three years down the road rather than trying to figure it out one, two, three months down the road."

Days after winning his third straight Big Ten championship with a 70-31 win over Nebraska, Bielema left Wisconsin for the vacant head coaching job at Arkansas. Wisconsin was left to search for just its third head coach in 23 seasons. Ultimately, Alvarez offered the job to a coach who nearly beat the Badgers earlier in the 2012 season. That man, also a former walk-on, was Utah State's Gary Andersen.

In the interviews, the walk-on program wasn't necessarily a point of emphasis, but it was a comfortable topic for Andersen. His experiences with walk-ons at Utah and Utah State were very similar to the Wisconsin tradition forged by Alvarez since 1990.

"It's unusual," Andersen said. "There's not many schools in the country that operate that way. It's a great belief of mine and a fortunate belief of mine, but we discussed it. It came up in the interview as far as my belief of walk-ons and obviously coach Alvarez had the exact same belief, and it's just another reason why it's a great fit for me."

Andersen added that in today's recruiting world, players commonly have opportunities to play elsewhere. That commemorative wall in Wisconsin's locker room is a key selling point for anyone thinking about accepting a walk-on offer. In recruiting these kids, coaches have to fill the right spots and positions.

"Sometimes you need more offensive linemen; sometimes you need more wide receivers," Andersen said. "But it's the same thing when we look at recruiting a kid that's tough-minded, that loves the game of football, loves Wisconsin football and is prepared to carry himself academically, socially and athletically in a big-time manner."

Alvarez introduced Andersen as the 29th head coach in Badgers history on Dec. 20, 2012. Before leading Utah State for four seasons, Andersen coached at his alma mater Utah for 11 seasons. His football career, though, started at Ricks College in the mid-1980s. Like Bielema and other walk-ons, he wanted to prove he could play and land a scholarship. He wound up playing center at Utah in 1985 and 1986, and that perseverance translated to coaching.

"I think it did teach me to fight," Andersen said. "I think it taught me to not take no for an answer when people say you can't do something and you want to continually fight to prove them, not really to prove them wrong, but to have belief in what you believe and not listen to what other people tell you. That's what I took out of it, and I think it's helped me in life."

On the opposite end of the coaching change, Bielema encountered a different culture upon arriving in Fayetteville. Arkansas' walk-ons dressed in a different locker room than the scholarship players, and they also received a different ticket allotment for games. That was one of the first changes Bielema implemented in a program trying to rebound from a disappointing 2012 season following the Bobby Petrino scandal.

Another difference Bielema saw involved the greater ability to recruit walk-ons outside of Arkansas. Wisconsin's tuition costs jump significantly for out-of-state residents, but at Arkansas, "if you're a bordering state, you get a percentage of discount to the general university, which makes it much more effective to recruit walk-ons not only in our home state, but all the bordering states as well," says Bielema.

Strickland and Swan have the unique perspectives of having interacted with Alvarez, Andersen and Bielema, as both walked on and played under Alvarez and Bielema, and coached under Bielema and Andersen.

"Every person's different in how they'll approach things and how they'll design practice and offseason this and that," Strickland said, "but ultimately, the core principles of what we're about and who we are have stayed the same, and I think that's been a testament to coach Alvarez and how he started things here."

★★★

It's a day many walk-ons dream about, and not just at Wisconsin: to be called into the coach's office, to get a phone call or even be surprised in a team meeting and told you're going on scholarship. Programs are allowed 85 players on scholarship each season, and with 105 on the roster, not every walk-on will be given a scholarship at some point in his college career.

"Hopefully, your senior year you can get one, but if you do well, and you know if you got in the two-deep, you'd have a chance afterwards to get one earlier," Abbrederis said.

"You just do what you can."

For the coaches, it's a special moment to celebrate the achievements of individuals who fought their ways up the ranks and contributed to the team. In installments of Wisconsin's YouTube series, "The Camp," both Andersen and Bielema surprised several walk-ons with the announcements.

"I like to do it in a setting where he really doesn't know it's coming and in front of his teammates, because his teammates want to celebrate that moment with him because they know how hard he's worked," said Andersen, noting that the coaching staff will be awarding more scholarships in January.

"There's more than one kid on this team that deserves that opportunity. It's great to do it in a team setting, so for those kids it's usually an emotional setting. It's emotional for me because it's a job well done, number one, and number two, they worked so hard to get there. It's a special situation."

Swan remembers former wide receivers coach Henry Mason having to contact him after Bielema tried multiple times to get in touch. Mason told Swan over the phone initially, but the receiver finally got to talk with the head coach to hear the good news.

"I think it definitely allowed me to kind of look back and reflect and say, ‘Alright, I accomplished something during the time,'" Swan said. "I kind of conquered, went against the odds, and it was a good milestone, and something that I had strove for and worked for."

His teammate and fellow wide receiver Hubbard was awarded a football scholarship as well, opening a spot on the track team for another athlete. Per Hubbard, being on a track scholarship allowed him to compete in track and field meets immediately, but not on the football field on Saturdays. If he would have, his scholarship would have counted against the program.

He felt accomplished once he was put on football scholarship, as he knew he could contribute to Wisconsin's success both in football and in track.

"That was a big thing for me because not only did I prove to them that I was a capable player for them, that I could help them win, I also opened up doors for somebody else in the track program which was something that I wanted to do," Hubbard said.

"I wanted to help my team."

Leonhard was awarded a scholarship following his sophomore season in 2002 when Alvarez mentioned it in front of the team. For the safety, who came out of nowhere to intercept a FBS-leading 11 passes, it meant everything to him and his parents, as he turned down scholarships from Division II schools to walk on at Wisconsin.

"They can't take that away with you," Leonhard said. "You earned that scholarship, and it just means a lot.

"It means a lot that you've earned your coaches' respect to represent that program."

For Abbrederis, his scholarship was supposed to be awarded after two seasons. Once Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, though, it was pushed back another semester to early 2012.

Maragos was put on scholarship his senior year. The team was in a meeting when it was announced that he and Watt would be receiving the honor.

"They saw and they validated what you were doing, and they agreed it was something worthwhile to invest in," Maragos said.

"I think that was one of the coolest things for me, and the excitement overall."

As depicted in one of "The Camp" episodes from the 2012 season, both Armstrong and Stave received their scholarships publicly. After Bielema announced Armstrong's, Hemer, another walk-on who came in with the same class as Armstrong, stood up and applauded while other teammates cheered loudly.

Achieving the goal of receiving that scholarship is not just the end-all, be-all for these walk-ons. The recognition for the unsung heroes is only one goal to accomplish, something Strickland knows as a former player and current coach. He received his scholarship after his first year playing, as Alvarez came down in the summer before his redshirt sophomore year during workouts to tell him the good news.

"I knew it was something that I had worked hard for, and I earned and I was very proud of," Strickland said. "That's kind of what all the walk-ons that have been through here [have experienced]; once you get something, obtain something, that's not enough.

"You've got to keep reaching."

★★★

Player development has long been a staple of Wisconsin football. The program has produced first-round draft picks and nine top-75 picks in each of the last three years, trailing only Alabama and LSU in the latter category. All four first-round draft picks -- Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler, Gabe Carimi and Watt -- were raised in-state. Walk-ons like Doering, Wagner, Ewing and Watt -- all initially not sought after by many major programs coming out of high school -- had their dreams of being drafted come true.

Overall, 30 former Badgers were on NFL rosters in some capacity as of mid-December. That's a credit to the recruiting and development process instilled by Alvarez for 16 seasons, continued by Bielema for seven and now resting with Andersen.

"We have young guys that are walk-ons now that are contributing that two years ago, I look at those guys and say, ‘There's no way they could ever make it on this team,'" Hemer said.

"There's so much growth here. This a program that develops individuals, develops players, not just four- and five-star recruits, but guys that come from small schools here in the state and elsewhere that it gives us an advantage."

"Guys that come from small schools here in the state and elsewhere that it gives us an advantage."

Those success stories have had profound impacts on Wisconsin's recruiting battles for prospects that were once low on the radars of many schools. Bielema points out how Big Ten coaches began offering younger, more developmental high school recruits from Wisconsin earlier than in previous years. The increased exposure greatly increased the stature of the state's talent pool.

"When you got J.J. Watt, Ethan Armstrong, Bradie Ewing, Ricky Wagner, Ethan Hemer, a number of guys on those Big Ten championship teams starting on consecutive back-to-back BCS games, and they weren't even offered a scholarship out of high school, it really opened up some people's eyes," Bielema said.

Some walk-ons go a little deeper, with those same players coming to UW with blue-collar chips on their shoulders, forged by the pride of being a part of the team they grew up watching. That "extra heart beat," as Bielema phrased it, mirrors the values of the state they were raised in.

"I think it just speaks to the state of Wisconsin and the people in it," Maragos said. "I think the people that represent the state of Wisconsin, that inhabit it, are hard-working people.

"They're tough, they're willing to do the little things. They're people that are willing to really work at everything that they have."

★★★

Wisconsin's walk-on program has come full circle, in a sense. Alvarez revitalized UW football starting in 1990, implementing the Nebraska blueprint from his time as a Husker. His grandson, Joe Ferguson, signed on to play football as one of the Badgers' preferred walk-ons in the 2013 recruiting class and received some playing time early in the season, primarily on special teams.

561333_mediumBurlsworth Trophy

Abbrederis' career at Wisconsin didn't end without national recognition outside of the Big Ten. In mid-December at a ceremony in Springsdale, Ark., the Springdale Rotary Club and the Burlsworth Foundation named him the winner of the 2013 Burlsworth Trophy as the nation's most outstanding player that began his career as a walk-on. The award is named for offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth, who walked on at Arkansas and eventually earned a scholarship as well as All-SEC and All-American honors before tragically dying in a car accident 11 days after being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1999.

"You think about the hard work that you put in through the years that brought you to where you are today," Abbrederis said after receiving the award.

"All those memories come back and you're honored, blessed."

Even Wisconsin's scholarship players were commonly under-recruited and under-the-radar to coaches and recruiting services. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer acknowledged during the 2013 Big Ten media days that he couldn't believe All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland, a native of Kettering, Ohio, was allowed to go outside state lines to play for the Badgers.

Walk-ons have helped define a program that has averaged a Rose Bowl appearance once every four years since 1990 and played in a New Year's Day bowl in eight of the past 10 seasons.

What Alvarez started and Bielema continued now lies with Andersen. The first-year coach led the Badgers to a 9-3 record and Capital One Bowl berth. Nobody, then, should expect significant changes to a formula largely responsible for revolutionizing Wisconsin football.

"The walk-on program here has been unbelievable in giving kids opportunities," Andersen said, "and will continue to be."

Producer: Luke Zimmermann | Editor: Mike Fiammetta

About the Author

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Co-host of Bucky's 5th Quarter's Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza and correspondent of Bucky's 5th Quarter. Blessed by God with a wonderful wife and son. Former independent wrestler who took one too many shots to the head.

Twitter: @JakeKocoB5Q, @KielbasaKingsWI

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