MADISON — For a defense that’s tied for fifth in the nation and leading the Big Ten in interceptions (14), the Wisconsin Badger that leads the team in that category is technically a reserve safety.
One that’s playing with a lot of trust and confidence while stepping up when called upon.
Redshirt senior Joe Ferguson owns four interceptions this season, and with his two picks plus a fumble recovery against Indiana after replacing starter D’Cota Dixon, he has now contributed to six of UW’s 19 takeaways in nine games.
His teammates aren’t surprised by his game-changing ability.
“‘Joe Ferg,’ he’s a play-maker,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said on Monday. “I mean, you guys don’t see it, but he does it every week, almost every day in practice. Since camp, we called it—Joe’s going to make a play just about every day. With D’Cota going down and Joe stepping in the past couple of games, it’s been really cool from a guy who’s worked hard to get to this point, been a special teams guy for most of his career, then this year to come up and lead our defense in takeaways is really cool.”
So what goes through the head of Ferguson, the former walk-on and Madison Memorial prep quarterback, when he gets his hands on the ball to register a takeaway?
“It’s just pure happiness, really,” Ferguson said. “You’re just happy that you made the play, happy that you affected the game in a big way. It’s going to help the team, that’s the biggest thing.”
What about when there’s a possibility to return it for six points?
“You got to be thinking end zone,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “That’s the only thing on your mind when you get the ball in your hands.”
Ferguson certainly took advantage of his opportunities early on this season, returning an interception 99 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Utah State. That broke the school record in that category.
In his first start of the season two weeks ago against Illinois when Dixon was a late scratch, he returned a fourth-quarter pick 37 yards.
The fifth-year player—and yes, grandson of former Wisconsin head coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez—noted there are a couple of factors that weigh into having that “ball-hawk,” play-making mentality.
“It starts with knowing the defense, knowing where you’re supposed to be and knowing how things are supposed to look,” Ferguson said. “The second part of that is having the ability and really trusting your ability to execute it. You can be the smartest guy in the world but not really trust yourself and be a little hesitant, and I think that’s where I was earlier in my career, then coach [Jim] Leonhard got here.”
“It’s kind of slowly started to change and confidence started to rise, and you see that with a ton of other guys, too. So it’s really just trusting that you can do it and learning what you can bring to the table. What route can I jump? How do I need to play this to be in the right spot? What do I need to do to trust my ability out there? That’s the biggest thing, too.”
Leonhard, Wisconsin’s first-year defensive coordinator, knows a thing or two about making big plays from the defensive backfield. He’s tied for the school record in career interceptions (21) and still holds the mark for most interceptions in a season (11 in 2002).
“You see the athletic ability. He’s got a nose for the ball,” Leonhard said on Wednesday. “He’s always been around the ball since I’ve been here, but I know he had kind of struggled with some health issues and the physicality sometimes wasn’t there because he was trying to protect himself.
“I can’t tell you exactly the day it was, but all of a sudden there was a big change where all of a sudden you see him flying down on special teams and making plays and throwing his body around. Obviously, it takes a little bit [of[ mentality to do that.”
Leonhard also recalled when a couple of coaches on headsets asked what Ferguson was doing on the field during the first week of the 2017 season.
“I’m like, ‘He’s disguising. That’s what disguising looks like. You just relax, he’s going to get where he needs to get,’” Leonhard said. “Usually you see that when guys don’t have a ton of experience, especially starting and playing that many snaps. It’s just, ‘Let me line up, let me do my job, and make sure I take care of me,’ and he’s out there communicating more than anybody. He’s out there disguising more than anybody, so that’s just confidence and just having the belief of, I know my job, I know my responsibility, and I’m going to get it done, and then he’s going to go above and beyond and try to help out.”
Ferguson will play in his 54th game on Saturday, tying him for second all-time in games played at Wisconsin with 10 other former players. He will only trail current outside linebacker Leon Jacobs, who will eclipse the school record for career games played (55) on his first snap against Iowa (2:30 p.m. CT, ABC).
Ferguson actually started one game in 2014 against South Florida, but It wasn’t until last year that he broke through.
“I felt like last fall camp ... I was kind of just out there,” Ferguson said. “I was making all the right checks, getting lined up right, but I wasn’t really making plays. I was just kind of there. About halfway through last year, I didn’t know if I was going to take my fifth year, so I wanted to just have fun playing football again. Just that decision made me just want to cut it loose more.
“Cutting it loose meant trying new things and I found out that I could do those things, and that gave me some confidence. Then I started to build off of that and make a ton of plays and had a good spring, and it went from there.”
Ferguson added that his father, Brad, a former Nebraska Husker from 1985-89, did not take his fifth year.
Dixon is questionable this week, though a report stated that he did practice on Thursday. That could mean Ferguson will have an opportunity for significant playing time against an Iowa offense that features a physical style of play and a pair of dangerous tight ends in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who have combined for 42 receptions and 10 touchdowns through nine games.
Heading into the game last week at Indiana, Ferguson wanted to focus on and trust his training and what was seen in practice. Those results paid off as he contributed to the three takeaways.
If, or probably when, called upon against the Hawkeyes, there’s no reason to believe Ferguson cannot replicate his strong performance this Saturday.
“I think he’s a guy who at most other Division I programs would be a starter, but he’s behind two good safeties in Natrell [Jamerson] and D’Cota,” outside linebacker Garret Dooley said, “and I think that’s just kind of a tough road for him and kind of an uphill climb, but he’s a heck of a player and a really good athlete. I just think he’s always been a guy who’s going to make the plays, and his success has not been surprising me at all.”