Alex Erickson earned a place as a starter for the Wisconsin Badgers, coming out of obscurity as a walk-on to become a contributor in 2013, the leading wide receiver for two seasons and a team captain in 2016.
Following a path similar as fellow walk-ons Jim Leonhard and Chris Maragos before him, he went undrafted last season. He signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, and though initially considered a long shot by many to make the roster, he showcased his talents in the preseason and won a place on the 53-man active roster.
In 2016 as the primary kickoff returner, Erickson led the NFL in kickoff return yardage and averaged nearly 28 yards per attempt. Among players who returned 20 or more kickoffs, his average ranked second in the league, and his three returns of 40 yards or more tied him for third.
On Monday, April 3rd at the Barnes and Noble near West Towne Mall in Madison, Erickson and former placekicker Andrew Endicott will join my co-author, Joel Nellis, and me for a book signing from 6-7 p.m. CT. That should allow those who show up to say hi, purchase a book, and get back home in time for the NCAA national championship game.
Of the entire group, Erickson’s journey to Wisconsin might be the most unconventional, which led to confusion about his eligibility back in 2014.
The Darlington, Wis. native enrolled at UW late in the fall of 2011 after deciding not to play basketball at Division III UW-Stevens Point. He joined the team in spring 2012 after Chryst and now-offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph left for Pitt.
Though he combined for 94 total touchdowns in his career as a dual-threat quarterback at Darlington High School, Erickson moved to wide receiver. It’s a position he’s still working to perfect, though he had some wise mentors ahead of him that guided him in his progression.
“I’ve only been playing it for four years, so I’m still learning a lot every day,” Erickson acknowledged. “You look at it like, ‘Oh, running routes can’t be that hard’ and then you get out there. It’s tough because you have to control your body so much, keep your arms moving and keep your feet under you. There’s so much to learn about just the route running alone. Then reading coverages, blocking schemes and where you have to go. There was a lot to learn, but I had Jeff Duckworth and Jared Abbrederis, guys that were experienced and played a lot of football here. They knew the positions and the schemes very well.”
Though still raw, the former Wisconsin State Journal Small School Player of the Year would make his break for playing time beginning in spring 2013. He played in all 13 games with three starts. He caught nine passes on the season, but a nasty hit in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina tore his meniscus to end his year.
Though the injury wouldn’t allow him to finish the bowl game, the snaps he gained provided more confidence moving forward.
“That season I grew so much mentally, more so than just experience on the field,” Erickson said. “It was getting over that mental bridge of, ‘I can play at this level. I can compete against these guys. I can compete against the best teams in the Big Ten, the best teams in the country.’”
With Abbrederis moving on to the NFL in 2014, there was a need for someone to step up in the receiving corps.
Erickson established himself as the No. 1 target for both McEvoy and later Stave.
He reeled in 55 receptions for 772 yards, including a five-catch, 160-yard performance against the Gophers in late November. Fighting through injuries, inconsistent play, and a run-heavy offense with Gordon and Clement – the rest of the position group only caught 39 passes combined.
With Chryst’s pro-style offense back in 2015, the wide receivers improved, catching 149 of the 252 team completions. Erickson paced the squad with 77 catches, the second-highest total for receptions in a season behind Abbrederis.
Erickson’s presence solidified a unit critical to the offense’s success during his time in Madison.
“I remember watching him right away when he got here,” Stave said of Erickson, who was named UW’s offensive player of the year by the coaches with his 973 yards receiving. “I was talking with (former graduate assistant) Luke Swan in Alex’s first camp, and just the way he caught the ball, just the way he ran. I thought he was going to end up being a pretty good player. We were dead-on with that.
“He’s very natural. He catches the ball really well with his hands. He’s smart, so he’s an easy guy to throw to because you know he’ll be in the right spot.”