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Meet Wisconsin’s Class of 2017 walk-ons

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The next in line to continue the Badgers’ storied tradition.

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hunter johnson student sports
Wisconsin walk-on commit Hunter Johnson.
Student Sports

Ten in-state players on Wednesday signed their letters of intent to play football for the Wisconsin Badgers as walk-ons.

What made this Class of 2017 unique was how quickly the recruits committed with preferred walk-on offers available. Wisconsin prep standouts like Jake Collinsworth, Matt Henningsen, Hunter Johnson and Collin Larsh verbally pledged during the summer, a full six to eight months before National Signing Day.

Now, they look to continue the tradition set forth by Barry Alvarez when he stepped foot into Madison, and seen throughout the years before by Joe Panos, Donnel Thompson, Jim Leonhard, Ben Strickland, Chris Maragos, J.J. Watt, Jared Abbrederis, Joe Schobert, Alex Erickson and Dare Ogunbowale.

Be sure to read the walk-on piece by UWBadgers.com’s Andy Baggot from Wednesday as well. Please note all stats below are from the players’ biographies on Wednesday’s National Signing Day page.

DE Michael Balistreri: Committed on Dec. 11, 2016

The 6’4, 280-pound Balistreri was a semifinalist for the Tim Krumrie Award as the state’s top senior defensive lineman and was a WFCA All-Star Game selection after recording 93 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and six sacks during senior season in 2016.

“Balistreri to me, when I watch his film, reminds me of Conor Sheehy,” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said on Wednesday. “Big, athletic, can run, so you look at that, and yeah, I would love to have that guy on our squad. Reminds me totally of Conor.”

ILB Ethan Cesarz: Committed on Dec. 17, 2016

The first-team all-state selection by the WFCA recorded 132 tackles, nine for loss, along with three sacks and forced fumbles apiece on the way to earning Southern Lakes Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. As many walk-ons have done prior, Cesarz excelled in multiple prep sports, earning 14 letters in all.

ILB Jake Collinsworth: Committed July 31, 2016

Collinsworth, the Merrill, Wis., native, was a three-time team captain and a two-time Man of Steel winner (earned for the highest-scoring preseason testing numbers on his high school team). Heading into his senior season, he was ranked the No. 3 linebacker in the state, according to WisSports.net.

Sam DeLany: Committed on Dec. 16, 2016

DeLany earned WFCA all-state honorable mention as a senior after recording a single-season program record 73 receptions for 939 yards, with seven touchdowns. The unanimous first-team All-Classic Eight Conference selection also owns the school record with 91 career receptions for 1,153 yards.

“The biggest thing that stood out about him was when he came to camp, I didn’t know who he was but his ability flashed and he showed up,” wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said of DeLany. “That there got my attention right off the bat. He was a kid that is quick, a kid that can run, a kid that caught the ball and was obviously playing quarterback. When you watch him, you feel like he’s been out there forever so that impressed me.”

DE Matt Henningsen: Committed on June 27, 2016

A WFCA first-team all-state selection, Henningsen earned those honors on both the offensive and defensive lines. He also was awarded the 2016 Greater Metro Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year.

“Matt, I had a chance to have him in camp, working him on offense and defense,” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said on Wednesday. “Love the way he works, love the way he approaches the game, love his energy, love that he’s going to be a part of this team and this family. I’m excited to work with all three of them.”

Hunter Johnson: Committed on July 30, 2016

Maybe the most intriguing name of this walk-on class, Johnson earned the WFCA Offensive Player of the Year award and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch award as state’s top senior running back as a senior.

The dynamic back rushed for 2,171 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2016—on only 172 carries. That’s six points on just over every four rushing attempts in his senior season.

Darlington, Wis., should sound familiar to Badgers fans—it’s the same hometown as former Wisconsin walk-on, captain and current Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson.

K Collin Larsh: Committed on Aug. 29, 2016

Another WFCA first-team all-state honoree, Larsh recorded 55 touchbacks in 2016 and successfully converted nine of 13 field goals and 82 of 86 extra points in his career. The Monona Grove standout also earned the Kevin Stemke Award as the state’s top senior kicker.

OG Blake Smithback: Committed on Jan. 21, 2017

Smithback was one of the later walk-on commits who turned down scholarship money from FCS program South Dakota State to sign with Wisconsin. A WFCA first-team all-state selection, a second-team all-state pick by Associated Press, he also earned Conference North Lineman of the Year in 2016.

B5Q’s Owen Riese, a former college offensive lineman, saw Smithback’s tenacity on film:

Smithback, who is listed at 6’3, 280 pounds on his Hudl account, is a typical mauler in the run game. Playing left tackle at Waunakee and blocking for Javian Dayne, the son of former Heisman winner Ron Dayne, he absolutely moves people in the run game and almost always finishes his block with his opponent pinned to the ground by their chest.

While Waunakee features a smash-mouth run game, it would occasionally pull Smithback, who showed nice agility and the ability to traverse the open field and latch onto linebackers at the second level. He shows the athleticism necessary to be proficient in pass protection, although Waunakee doesn’t pass a whole lot.

OT Josh Seltzner: Committed on Jan. 6, 2017

Another January commit, Seltzner received scholarship offers from FCS programs Indiana State and North Dakota. The Columbus, Wis., native earned WFCA first-team all-state and AP second-team all-state honors in 2016. The team captain was also selected to be the Capital North Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior.

ATH Coy Wanner: Committed on Jan. 1, 2017

An intriguing prospect at 6’3, 238 pounds, Wanner earned team MVP honors at Green Bay Preble as both a junior and senior, finishing his high school career with 2,200 passing yards, over 1,300 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns.

Wanner also won the High School Quarterback Challenge at Lambeau Field in 2016.

For more on Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition, check out B5Q’s longform, Walk-On Wisconsin. Also be sure to check out the book Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition at University Bookstores, Bucky’s Locker Room/Name of the Game and limited Barnes & Noble stores in the state. You can also purchase the book online at KCISports.com and Amazon.