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Which walk-ons will contribute to Wisconsin in 2018?

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Our annual look at who will make an impact without a scholarship.

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NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

It is a tradition replicated by few other college football programs, and one that continues to help bring success to Wisconsin Badgers football.

Since Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison in 1990, Wisconsin’s walk-ons have become what many refer to as the “glue in the foundation,” filling in when injuries or other circumstances. They take advantage of those chances and have heavily contributed, leaving their mark on their respective teams.

J.J. Watt, Joe Schobert, Donnel Thompson, Jared Abbrederis, Alex Erickson, and Dare Ogunbowale—to name a few—elevated their games not just to fill in when needed, but become standout players as well.

Last season, Wisconsin’s leading receiver (Troy Fumagalli), tackler (Ryan Connelly), and one of its interceptions leaders (Joe Ferguson) were all walk-ons. Let’s look at those who came to UW without a scholarship that could make an impact this season.

Ryan Connelly

After Chris Orr was lost for the season on the first offensive snap against LSU in the 2016 home opener, Connelly stepped into game action and really has not looked back since, becoming a fixture and standout on defense the past two years.

With Jack Cichy going down in fall camp with an ACL injury last August, the Eden Prairie, Minn., native again answered the call, leading the Badgers in tackles (88) while tying for second in tackles for loss (11).

This season, Connelly and All-American T.J. Edwards will again team up to form a dynamic tandem at inside linebacker. Like Edwards and Andrew Van Ginkel, Connelly also claimed 2018 Butkus Award watch list honors in July, and deservedly so. He possesses an athleticism that allows him to get in the backfield quickly, and this season could be another huge campaign for the redshirt senior.

Zander Neuville

As with Connelly, Neuville will likely start the majority of games for Wisconsin this season. A converted defensive lineman, the Waupaca, Wis., product is the offense’s No. 1 in-line “Y” tight end.

Last season, he caught nine passes for 81 yards with two touchdowns and was a significant contributor to the rushing attack as a blocker. Unfortunately, a torn right ACL in the regular-season finale at Minnesota cut short the rest of his season.

As seen in summer conditioning, Neuville appears ready to return.

“This summer was big for me, though, just getting my mental confidence back,” Neuville said at local media day on Aug. 1. “I was able to do everything with the team. I was running routes again, so I feel really confident heading into fall camp.”

Neuville told B5Q there were no restrictions on him in terms of what he can do during practice, but confirmed UW’s staff was keeping an eye on his volume of reps (think an equivalent to baseball’s pitch count) to ensure his right knee is doing well. He did suffer a right leg injury on Saturday during the third fall camp practice, though UW later confirmed it was not the knee.

Tyler Johnson during a spring practice.
Tyler Johnson during a spring practice.
Jake Kocorowski

Tyler Johnson

With Zack Baun out all year due to a left foot injury, Johnson became the fourth linebacker in the rotation last season behind Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs, and Van Ginkel.

The stats may not be robust, with eight tackles, two for loss, a sack, and two forced fumbles in 14 games played, but the Menasha, Wis., product will likely be called upon this year with Dooley and Jacobs off to the NFL.

“Throughout summer, my goal was just to get as big, as fast, as strong as I could,” Johnson said at media day, “because once the season comes around, the only goal I really have is to put myself into a position to be somebody who goes out there and does whatever he has to help this team succeed and make the team better from what I can do.”

A Butkus Award watch nominee, Van Ginkel will in all likelihood be the one opposing defenses will scheme against. Though Baun has been working with Van Ginkel as a first-team outside linebacking unit during the first week of camp, Johnson is in position to be a greater part of the rotation.

“Tyler’s just been consistent over and over and over,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said in late April. “He did it last year, and he flashed some playmaking ability for us, so we’ve liked what he’s done. Once again, it’s just kind of taking it to the next level as far as confidence in my opinion this spring.”

Garrett Groshek

The 2017 season became “The Jonathan Taylor Show” for the Wisconsin offense, but Groshek emerged as a reliable player with injuries to Chris James and Bradrick Shaw, rushing for 297 yards on 4.9 yards per carry with two touchdowns.

Previously known for his mullet, the Amherst Junction, Wis., native will likely be part of another deep running back group. Though he only caught four passes for 40 yards last season, he worked on route running during particular spring practices with Taylor and head coach Paul Chryst. It will bear watching how the former prep quarterback influences the offense this season.

Currently, he is limited in fall camp due to a right arm injury that requires him to wear a wrap/cast of sorts around his hand and wrist area.

Zach Hintze/P.J. Rosowski

Rosowski was a revelation back in 2016 for Wisconsin’s kickoff coverage unit, but after an injury sidelined him last season, Hintze stepped up in a huge fashion by drilling 54 of his 79 kickoffs for touchbacks (10th in the nation with a minimum of 50 attempts) while averaging 64.1 yards per kickoff (also 10th in the nation).

Should Wisconsin need Rosowski again at some point, the team should be in good hands. During that 2016 season, the Stoughton, Wis., product converted 51 of 79 kickoffs as touchbacks, good for 15th in the nation.

Connor Allen

Simply put, he holds for Rafael Gaglianone, who could set the all-time record for field goals made in school history this season. Pretty big deal. He also takes a great picture.

Jake Kocorowski

Others who could contribute: Offensive lineman Jason Erdmann, inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas, defensive end Matt Henningsen, wide receivers Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz, tight end Gabe Lloyd (special teams)

The future: Fullbacks Coy Wanner and John Chenal, placekicker Collin Larsh

If you’re a fan of Wisconsin and a fan of walk-ons, be sure to check out the book former Wisconsin tight end Joel Nellis and I wrote, Walk-On This Way. It’s available at KCISports.com and Amazon.