Alex Erickson is accustomed to working his way up and proving himself. After a prep career in which he accounted for 94 touchdowns as a quarterback and was named the Wisconsin State Journal’s small school player of the year, the Darlington, Wis., native walked on to Wisconsin and transitioned to wide receiver.
Erickson went on to catch 141 passes, sixth-most in UW history, on his way to being named a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media in 2015. His 1,877 yards rank him 10th all-time at Wisconsin, and he was one reception short of tying Jared Abbrederis— another former walk-on wide receiver—for the single-season mark.
Yet despite his accolades, Erickson wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Instead, he was left to showcase his speed and agility at UW’s pro day with 40-yard dash times between 4.44 and 4.54 seconds, and a spectacular pro-agility time of 3.88 seconds.
Still, he went undrafted in the late-April NFL draft. As a free agent, Erickson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, and now, just like four years earlier, he has to earn his stripes.
“It’s kind of the same mentality as you go as a walk-on,” Erickson said when asked about the similarities between his beginnings in Madison and now Cincinnati. “You’re not the most highly-touted guy, so you’re going to have earn everything you get. Just coming to work every single day, taking the coaching, and just being coachable and working hard are the biggest things.
“Obviously the skill set of it, making plays and all of that, you have to do that, too—but if you’re working hard, taking the coaching, you’re going to be going in the right direction. That’s what [the coaches] want to see. They want to see constant improvement, they want to see a guy who’s consistent. If you do that, you’re going to give yourself a chance.”
Two games into the 2016 NFL preseason, Erickson has done just that. He’s caught three passes so far, including one of the two Bengals’ touchdown receptions against the Minnesota Vikings and his former quarterback, Joel Stave, on Aug. 12.
When fighting for a roster spot in the NFL, versatility at both your position group and on special teams increases your value. For Erickson, that latter phase of the game is where he’s shined brightly early on. He came to the Bengals after returning 24 punts at Wisconsin, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. All came during the 2015 season.
Against the Vikings and the Detroit Lions, he averaged 55 yards per return. Last week, he brought back a punt 30 yards to set up a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 30-6 lead against the Lions in the fourth quarter.
It was his fourth-quarter return against the Vikings, however, that emphatically displayed his elusiveness and ability to make a play when needed. Fielding the ball at his own 20-yard line after a booming Jeff Locke punt, Erickson hauled in the punt and proceeded to act as a human pinball, bouncing off hits and attempted tackles.
Turning upfield, he cut inside on a poor angle by Locke and accelerated past a few defenders into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown.
“The punter really drove it well, so I knew I was going to return it so he kicked it really far. I was running backwards to catch it, caught it, and I had tons of room,” Erickson said, describing the beginning of his return. “Our guys had straight enough runs and had it blocked up, so I kind of ran up in the pile a little bit. [The Vikings] didn’t wrap up, but our guys were still blocking them, too, so it makes it tougher to wrap up when you’re getting blocked.
“I was able to sneak out of there. Some guys made some great blocks downfield, and I was able to outrun the punter there and get in the end zone.”
Celebration ensued on the Cincinnati sideline. Running back Jeremy Hill lifted Erickson off of the ground, with teammates surrounding and congratulating him.
The legitimate praise seen on the highlight reel was a telling sign, and his former coach at Wisconsin took notice
“I had a chance—a couple of guys pulled it up—and saw Alex’s punt return,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said on Aug. 15 when asked about Erickson and Tanner McEvoy’s big NFL debuts. “To me, I saw the reactions from the sidelines when he’s coming off. Guys aren’t going to react like that if he hasn’t been doing something, and I don’t know, right? I haven’t talked with Alex. I haven’t been there, but if guys are genuinely excited for someone else, my guess is he’s doing things [well] day-to-day.
“So often, what you see in practice, what you do in practice, isn’t noticed by those in the game because they don’t always come up,” continued Chryst, who was previously an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers. “My guess from seeing that is he’s having a good camp.”
Besides the warm reception from his current Bengals teammates, Erickson also heard from McEvoy after the breakout performance. McEvoy, who recently moved to offense from safety, caught a 37-yard touchdown pass at the end of regulation in his first preseason game for the Seattle Seahawks in a 17-16 win.
“It was funny because he texted me after my game [and] telling me I need to work on my touchdown celebration,” Erickson said. “I saw him catch a touchdown, and he didn’t have much of a celebration either, so I had to text him and let him know about that.”
Erickson is joined in Cincinnati by a former Wisconsin teammate, cornerback Darius Hillary, as undrafted free agents trying to make the Bengals roster that also boasts former standout Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. They are among other Badgers from the 2015 squad looking to earn spots on an NFL roster after not being drafted, including Stave (Minnesota), McEvoy (Seattle), safety Michael Caputo (Los Angeles Rams), tight end Austin Traylor (Dallas Cowboys) and offensive lineman Tyler Marz (Tennessee Titans).
Many believed prior to training camp that Erickson was a long shot for the Bengals’ active roster, but he appears to be currently locked in a tight battle for what could be the final wide receiver spot. Through training camp and the first two preseason games, he’s been able to prosper and flash in front of the coaching staff when called upon.
The dedication to his craft, and that extra, underestimated drive seen by former walk-ons like Jim Leonhard, Chris Maragos and Luke Swan before him are evident. Erickson is close to a dream many envision as kids playing in their backyards, but through it all, he’s enjoying the process.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can here every single day,” Erickson said. “There’s definitely a lot more to learn, but it’s been fun, and [I’m] just enjoying it every day as much as I can.”