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Troy Fumagalli, Ryan Connelly among Wisconsin walk-ons who could contribute in 2017

I wrote a book on walk-ons. You knew this was coming.

Troy Fumagalli
It’s hard to believe preseason All-American Troy Fumagalli was a walk-on.
Jake Kocorowski

It’s a tradition that’s continued to provide excellence for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Especially since the arrival of Barry Alvarez in 1990, walk-ons have contributed to the success of the UW football program in an uncanny precedent that’s grown over the past 26 years. The names Joe Panos, Donnel Thompson, Mark Tauscher, J.J. Watt, Jared Abbrederis, and so many more have not just been the “glue in the foundation,” but they have helped UW secure greatness in conference titles and bowl victories on the way to greater achievements.

This year’s team is no different. Two team captains—tight end Troy Fumagalli and inside linebacker Jack Cichy—are former walk-ons who worked their way up the ranks, earning the highest respect from their peers. Even with Cichy’s season-ending injury, there will be numerous current and former walk-ons who will play key roles on the field for this team.

We should also mention Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s new defensive coordinator and second-year defensive backs coach. A former walk-on from Tony, Wis., Leonhard became a three-time All-American and 10-year NFL veteran. Last year, he guided the Badgers’ secondary to greater accolades with the starters recording 16 of the team’s 22 interceptions. It should be intriguing to watch how he adds his own spin to the 3–4 scheme brought to Wisconsin by Dave Aranda in 2013 and refined under Justin Wilcox in 2016.

Tight end Troy Fumagalli

I’m not sure what else really needs to be said about the 6’6, 248-pound offensive target, who earned preseason, first-team All-American nods from the likes of Athlon Sports, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN, with second-team honors from other publications. He could also be a prime candidate for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the nation’s best player who started his career as a walk-on.

During the spring, tight ends coach Mickey Turner mentioned how he wanted Fumagalli—who led the team in receptions (47) with big games against LSU (seven receptions, 100 yards), Ohio State (seven receptions, 84 yards) and Western Michigan (six receptions, 83 yards, one touchdown)—to be consistent in every game. During fall camp, he appeared to be a dominant presence, showing that he can not just catch the ball but also be a factor in the run game as a blocker.

If he stays healthy, Fumagalli will etch his name onto a list of great Wisconsin tight ends (and NFL prospects), joining Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, Travis Beckham, and Lance Kendricks.

Inside linebacker Ryan Connelly

A prime example of being that “glue in the foundation,” Connelly solidified the inside linebacking corp in 2016 after season-ending injuries to Chris Orr and Cichy in the first and seventh games of the season. He responded to increased playing time by posting 59 tackles, seven for loss, and having huge games against LSU and Nebraska—the game earning him co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Though he missed the entire spring and a bit of fall camp with injuries, Connelly was listed as the starter alongside fellow redshirt junior T.J. Edwards on the first depth chart of the season.

“I think Ryan’s played really well. I think that he’s playing fast, he’s trusting himself, and I think he’s a really good football player,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Sunday. “Certainly, we think Chris [Orr] is a good football player, too, but Ryan, he’s looks comfortable and he’s played. I think that experience of playing and starting has helped him in his preparation.”

Tight end Zander Neuville

Like Connelly, Neuville missed some time early during fall camp with an injury. However, the converted defensive lineman appears set to contribute starting Week 1 vs. Utah State. Listed on the two-deep alongside redshirt sophomore Kyle Penniston as co-No. 2 tight ends, he should receive plenty of reps in two and three-tight end sets.

It also shouldn’t be just in the run game where Neuville excels in Wisconsin’s offense. He has shown the ability to catch the ball and could be an intriguing option in the passing game.

“He’s a work horse,” Fumagalli said on Sunday. “He does all the things right, and I think he’s going to be really fun to watch.”

Kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski

Maybe one of the unsung heroes of the 2016 squad (like all specialists, amirite?), Rosowski’s kickoffs helped set opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Fifty-one of his 79 kickoffs reached beyond the end zone, resulting in touchbacks and allowing UW’s top-10 defense to pin its ears back and attack opponents.

Though it appears Rosowski isn’t the back-up punter to Anthony Lotti (that goes to Connor Allen on the depth chart, as Rosowski is actually listed as a kicker now), he will play a huge role in keeping offenses at bay and neutralizing dangerous returners in 2017. He also recently earned a scholarship.

Others

Holder/punter Connor Allen

Allen earned the holder job last season after Drew Meyer exhausted his eligibility and he continues that chemistry with redshirt junior placekicker Rafael Gaglianone in 2017.

Remember, folks: #SpecialistsArePeopleToo

Outside linebacker Tyler Johnson

The season-ending injury to redshirt sophomore Zack Baun opens the door for Johnson, who initially started at outside linebacker before moving to inside linebacker in the spring. After that experiment, he bumped back outside and now appears to be in position to show what he can bring to the defense as he’s listed as one of the back-up ‘backers.

“I think when he came here, he really hadn’t play a lot of defense, period,” Chryst said on Sunday. “[He’s] a guy who has a tremendous amount of respect from everyone on the team, coaches and players, because of the way he works and approaches it. So I think he’s put himself in position to grow and truly earn the opportunity that will be there for him. Also at that position, when you’re talking about depth, it’s been [good] to get Christian Bell back into things, and it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses.”

On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard mentioned to reporters a three-man rotation at outside linebacker between starters Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, with junior Andrew Van Ginkel, with Johnson contributing if needed. The Menasha, Wis., product did earn praise from one of the key cogs of the Wisconsin defense on Sunday.

“Johnny, yeah, he’s been playing really well,” T.J. Edwards said. “I think even last year he was a guy who progressed a lot. Even this spring, he was playing very well. This summer camp, he’s made a lot of plays, a lot of good plays. He’s done some really good things on special teams, so he’s going to see a good amount of time on the field, and I’m excited for him. He works really hard, so he’s earned it.”

Safety Joe Ferguson

The redshirt senior is listed as the No. 2 strong safety behind D’Cota Dixon. Ferguson played like a ballhawk during the spring, making interceptions and plays against the run.

His impressive spring transferred into an extremely solid fall camp. If anything happens to Dixon, Ferguson should be a more-than-capable replacement. He may also again see time as the third safety on the field in multiple-tight end sets, as seen in years past.

“Joe Ferguson is a phenomenal player, a phenomenal person. I love Joe,” Dixon said on Sunday. “He always brings energy. He always makes you smile. He always makes me laugh everyday, I swear this kid makes me laugh so much.

“Joe, we call him ‘Eight Ball.’ I feel like he’s a closer. If you need anything done, Joe can get it done. He’s always been a playmaker. He’ll definitely contribute as well this season.”

The rest: No. 2 center Brett Connors, No. 2 right guard Jason Erdmann, inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas

[Update 12:40 p.m. CT: Clarified possible role of Johnson based on Jim Leonhard’s comments on Wednesday morning]