It’s a tale that’s been told before, where an in-state player foregoes a scholarship opportunity to take a chance as a walk-on for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Grantsburg, Wis., running back/linebacker John Chenal first committed to North Dakota earlier this year, feeling that it might be his shot to play at a Division I program. Then a preferred walk-on offer surfaced on the weekend Wisconsin played Florida Atlantic—the same weekend his younger brother, class of 2019 recruit Leo, received a scholarship opportunity.
That didn’t mean reopening his recruitment—and letting the North Dakota coaching staff know of his intent—was easy.
“It was really hard, especially putting my word, my name on the line, because I’m not one that likes to back out. When I give you my word, it’s usually how it is,” Chenal said on Wednesday. “This is just a big decision. I couldn’t let this one slide because it’s my life decision and where I want to go, and that’s how it just played out.”
Chenal admitted he was going to call the Wisconsin coaching staff earlier that Monday, but he found out head coach Paul Chryst and special teams coach Chris Haering would be coming to Grantsburg, which is situated near the Minnesota border in the northwest part of the state and a 4.5-hour trip from Madison.
“They visited our school, and both of them were there so it was really special to be able to do that,” Chenal said.
Thank you to Coach Chryst for visiting the school today! Excited to announce that I have taken a PWO offer to play for the Badgers! ⚪️ pic.twitter.com/s0rQZMaM1y— John Chenal (@JohnChenal) September 18, 2017
Chenal camped at Wisconsin in early June and was invited back a weekend later to tour the campus and facilities.
“Wisconsin, for a big-time school, it just has a small-town feel,” he said. “There wasn’t anyone that had their noses in the air, and all the coaches really were down-to-earth kind of people and that really stuck out for me. Not other Big Ten schools that I talked to were like that, but Wisconsin just has that feel of small town and down-to-earth type things.”
Listed at 6’3, 222.5 pounds at the WFCA Combine back in the spring, Chenal brings an intriguing skill set of power and speed to the Pirates, who are currently 6–0 after Friday night’s 36–0 win over Saint Croix Falls.
Grantsburg head coach Adam Hale praised Chenal for having “great talent” and combining his speed—recorded at a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the combine—with his ability to break tackles.
“He’s a very smart football player on both sides of the ball. He gets it. He understands the game, he reads blocks well,” Hale said on Wednesday. “He does a lot of the intangibles. First and foremost, he’s just kind of a powerful runner, and once he gets out into the open field, he’s not that guy that gets caught from behind.”
Chenal acknowledged the ability to break through defenders’ attempts to bring him down has been an area of focus this year.
“That’s been my goal, to not to be taken down by one guy, and that’s just really been a positive for me this year,” Chenal said. “If I can break one tackle, then I can easily break another tackle unless he’s still on me. Really, power running has been my strength this year.”
That has shown in the win column and on the stats sheets. According to WisSports.net, Chenal rushed for 947 yards on 65 attempts (14.6 yards per carry) with 16 touchdowns in four games. That includes six receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown, with the full stats from the most recent win not available at the time of this publication.
Hale admitted that those yards were gained in maybe one full game that his starters have played, then a couple of games of them only playing a quarter-and-a-half or so. Their Week 4 game was also a forfeit, so the results in seemingly limited play appear even more impressive.
“He’s a big, strong kid, and he wears like a collar, so it makes him look even bulkier,” Hale said. “He can run. He’s a lot more athletic than I think people give him credit just because again on the size, but him and Leo both, they do a really good job of catching the ball, and that’s something that doesn’t get noticed as much, but he can move.”
Defensively, Chenal has returned two interceptions for touchdowns already this season after recording six picks last year. According to Hale, the playmaker started to come around midyear through his sophomore year to become a student of the game.
“He really understands what offenses are trying to do, does a great job with that,” Hale said. “Coverage-wise, the interceptions show he can drop and he can cover a lot of ground. He’s got two-pick sixes already this season, does a really good job of getting deep, especially on pass-covering a lot of spots that normal linebackers can’t get to.”
Chenal feels he has the ability to read opposing guards and watch where a quarterback is looking.
“I feel like I’ve got good vision, good awareness of what’s happening, and sometimes I can see things before they happen,” said Chenal, who said he looks up to current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. “That’s just come from experience from me, and it’s really benefited me in the long run.”
Where he lines up at the next level is to be determined, as Chenal said the coaching staff mentioned he could play most positions on the field. It appears fullback or linebacker could be his future spots in Madison in a “heads-or-tails” kind of situation for now.
After committing to Wisconsin, Chenal successfully bench pressed 405 pounds. An impressive feat, though a snake bite he received on vacation earlier in the summer cost him half of his right index finger and achieving that goal earlier.
“That’s been my goal, to get four plates on the bench, and I don’t want to just be known for bench,” said Chenal, who mentioned his squats are currently at 460 pounds.
Chenal knows Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition of producing standout players, mentioning Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as players from smaller towns who turned into Badger stars.
“They come from a small town,” he said, “and Wisconsin really turns them around and really shows their true potential, and I feel like that could be a possibility for me.”
The ability to play with Leo—not just in pursuit of a Division 6 state title, but for their home-state Division 1 program—was also one of the major factors leading to his decision to play college football in Madison.
“There’s a bond, it’s hard for me to explain,” Chenal said. “There’s not a bond in any other sport like it, and I just want to continue to play with him at the next level, so that’s one of the reasons why I committed.”