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Previously committed to other programs, these Badgers found a home at Wisconsin

A look at the recruiting process when you think you have your future planned, and then something happens.

Rutgers v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 recruiting class sits at 19 verbal commitments heading into the start of the early signing period on Wednesday.

The key words here are verbal commitments. These prep standouts are not officially Badgers until they sign their national letters of intent and send them to UW via fax, email, or even just a texted picture.

Before they signed their NLIs to play in Madison, some prominent Badgers on this year’s team, initially pledged to other universities. In UW’s 2019 class alone, four commits—tight end Clay Cundiff (Kansas), wide receiver Stephan Bracey (Western Michigan), fullback Quan Easterling (Akron), and safety Titus Toler (Colorado)—all previously committed to play for other programs.

For that matter, three others—projected safety Bryson Shaw (Ohio State) and wide receivers Nolan Groulx (Wake Forest) and Marcus Graham (Stanford)—first committed to Wisconsin before reopening their recruiting processes and landing at other Power Five schools.

The 2018 Wisconsin team would be vastly different if All-Americans T.J. Edwards (Western Michigan) and Jonathan Taylor (Rutgers), fullback Alec Ingold (Northern Illinois), quarterback Alex Hornibrook (Pitt), and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose (Rutgers, then Georgia) decided to stay with their initial choices.

Wisconsin fans also would not have seen the backfield tandem of running back Melvin Gordon and fullback Derek Watt if they stuck with their commitments to Iowa and Northwestern, respectively.

Nebraska v Wisconsin Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

What makes players flip to Wisconsin?

When talking with Edwards last week about his decision to come to UW, he recalled the culture standing out the most.

“I didn’t know too much of the history and things like that, so I truly just went off the feel that I got off the guys around the locker room being around each other,” said Edwards, who will play his final game as a Badger in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27. “You could truly feel the care from teammate to teammate, and I tried not to look too much anything outside of that because as we know in this business, a lot of things change. Just kind of going off of what I felt from the culture, it was a good family environment.”

Edwards pledged first to Western Michigan in June 2013. That program was led by current Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck.

“I just thought they were building something special there, and the proof shows in the pudding because they ended up being really successful,” Edwards said. “We ended up seeing them in the Cotton Bowl, and they’re definitely on the right track and that’s what got my attention there.

“I think Wisconsin hit me up pretty late in the recruiting period, but I think when you get a call from a place like this, it’s hard to say no. Once you take a visit, it’s impossible to say no.”

A future Badger, Bracey committed to the Broncos in the post-Fleck era this October. A day later, the wideout received the coveted offer from Wisconsin via assistant coach Bob Bostad.

Less than four weeks later, Bracey announced his decision to flip to the Badgers.

“It was pretty much just when I was talking with the coaches, just how they felt about me not as just a player but as a person too, like my character, and how that stands out to them and my family,” Bracey said last month. “Just how I fit into their program and playing at a higher level of competition because I believe I can play in the Big Ten. A lot more exposure and stuff like that, stuff that’ll make me better and more competitive and play at a higher level.”

Another former MAC commit, Ingold planned to head to Northern Illinois. That all changed when Paul Chryst became head coach at Wisconsin after Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State in December 2014. There was a previous recruiting relationship between player and coach when Chryst was at Pitt, and when he came home to Madison, Ingold took notice.

“For me, I always wanted a place that respected me and valued me, so obviously the old staff here didn’t think, feel that way,” said Ingold, who verbally committed to Wisconsin in January 2015. “When coach Chryst came to one of my playoff games when he was at Pitt, watched me play, and the next day offered me, I knew I had a coaching staff over there that valued me and wanted me a part of that team.

“When they came to Wisconsin, it was only a few days later they brought that offer with them, so that was kind of really the breaking point for me because NIU, they appreciated me and they valued me,” Ingold said, “and I was going to be a big part of their program over there. That’s why I wanted to be there and when I had that same opportunity at Wisconsin, that’s what made me switch.”

Cundiff, the former Jayhawks tight end commit, told B5Q in October that the first moment he realized he was probably going to commit to Wisconsin was when assistant coach Ted Gilmore came to his high school and asked if he would take an official visit. After receiving an offer during his official visit after Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska, he slept on it but told Chryst the next day.

“The coaches in Madison are amazing, they’re genuine people and they really care,” Cundiff said. “I feel like I will be taken very good care of over the next four to five years there.

“And the game-day atmosphere was incredible, there’s nothing like it.”

Sometimes you think you find the right place not once, not twice, but three times. Wildgoose, the freshman cornerback, initially committed to Rutgers in April 2017 before reopening his recruitment in May and committing to Georgia in June.

Wildgoose recalled the Scarlet Knights being his first offer, and with that initial opportunity, he felt the love from the program. Then, his recruiting process heated up considerably.

“Then, I took a visit to Georgia,” Wildgoose said last week. “That was like the best visit I ever had, so I committed there. Then as the process went on, [Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim] Leonhard came on me. I had a good bond with coach Leonhard. He was just talking more consistent. I felt more cared about here. At Georgia, I felt like it would have just been, ‘We got them, but like we really haven’t been investing too much time into him every day’ as coach Leonhard. He’s talking to me everyday through the recruiting process, so I felt better here.”

Wildgoose reopened his recruiting process in January of this year, then committed to Wisconsin on National Signing Day in February. Beyond the bond with his future defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, Wildgoose took stock of a former Badger now playing in the NFL.

“They had a great defense,” Wildgoose said. “I was watching Nick Nelson play all last year, he was a great player, so I figured he got great coaching, so I just joined the wave.”

Making the call

You are a 17 or 18-year-old kid already thinking your collegiate future is already set. Then you realize you have to make the choice between honoring your initial verbal commitment or making the call to let your previous staff know you’re going to Wisconsin.

“Honestly, I don’t even remember what I did, but probably called the head coach and let him know. You can’t just leave. You gotta tell people that you’re leaving,” Hornibrook said last week.

Wildgoose recalled the two calls he made within a year’s time—first to Rutgers head coach Chris Ash and then to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart—to notify them of his decision to reopen his recruiting process.

“It’s hard because, like, they invested into you, so it’s kind of hard to decommit,” Wildgoose said, “but at the same time, you have to do what’s best for you because they’re going to do what’s best for them.”

Before announcing his decision to come to Wisconsin instead of Kansas, Cundiff tried to contact then-head coach David Beaty to no avail at first.

Edwards admitted he was “dreading” making the phone call to Fleck.

“I called coach Fleck, and obviously he didn’t like that too much and had a few choice words for me and things like that, but I get it, it’s one of those things that I had to do,” Edwards said. “He did the same thing, so I think it’s just kind of you, truly at that point, you have to do what you feel is best for yourself and take it from there.”

Ingold still remembers the person he had to tell, former Northern Illinois offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bob Cole. He believes that talk made him grow up a lot.

“A lot of emotion in that conversation for a young kid,” Ingold said. “I’m 18 years old, and I’m affecting a lot of people other than myself in making that decision, so it was tough, but I knew it was a conversation that I had to have.”

Bracey initially told Western Michigan that he loved its program but felt he was a better fit and had a better opportunity to maximize his potential at Wisconsin.

“They were OK with it. They understood,” Bracey said. “They just respected my decision pretty much, because at the end of the day, it’s my life.”

Even after that conversation, Bracey recalled Western Michigan assistant Lou Esposito coming out to see him the next day and told him to do what he had to do.

For these young players, the decision of where they will play and attend school affects not just their short-term future but what lies ahead further down the road. Having that conversation is difficult, but it is a necessary resolution.

“I think it’s definitely tough for young kids to do that kind of stuff, but it’s just an objective decision,” said Hornibrook, who followed Chryst from Pitt to Wisconsin with an early January 2015 commitment.

“You got to stick with your gut and go with it.”