Imagine playing a sport for less than a year in high school, but making such an impression that your home-state, dream college program offers you just a couple months after your junior season.
Cole Dakovich and his family headed into head coach Paul Chryst’s office after a tour of Wisconsin’s facilities on a recent visit. It was there that Chryst offered the in-state standout from Waukesha, Wis. (Catholic Memorial).
Not too bad for a high-school junior who just came back to the game.
“I did not expect to be here after just a year of playing football,” Dakovich told B5Q on Jan. 27. “It’s a great feeling.”
The courtship between Dakovich and Wisconsin started midseason, with UW special teams coach Chris Haering making the trip east to catch one of Catholic Memorial’s games. Dakovich attended the Badgers’ home wins against Nebraska and Illinois, noting the relationship “started to really pick up” after the start of the new year.
With his head coach, Bill Young, along with athletic director and assistant coach Matt Bergan in Young’s office, Dakovich called Haering first and then Chryst to deliver the news of his commitment.
“Playing at Wisconsin has really always been a dream of mine,” Dakovich said. “That’s really the main reason why I committed so quickly is because once I got that offer, it was honestly like a dream come true, and I wanted to act on it right away.”
The decision to play football for the first time in high school came last spring during his sophomore year. After playing the game from fifth through seventh grade, his freshman and sophomore years in the fall were dedicated to volleyball followed by basketball during the winter sports season.
Bergan said last week that Dakovich currently measures around 6’5, 223 pounds, and has a great frame to play the game but was committed to playing hoops. That changed last spring.
“He basically told us that it was in the spring of his sophomore year,” Bergan said, “and he was playing AAU basketball, and he felt like the game could not take him any further and he said, ‘I just want to go out for football.’ A lot of his best friends were in football, and right when he joined the team, he knew it was meant for him. He loves to work hard, he spends a lot of time in the weight room working on speed and agility stuff in the mornings. Obviously he’s still a basketball player. He’s going to be on the track team this spring, and so he’s a multi-sport kid.”
Dakovich weighed his options with a number of people before finally making the decision to play football.
“It was a lot of just talking with my friends and my family about what I think is best and what they thought,” Dakovich said. “I talked to the coaches about it, and they thought it was a really smart move. After I made the decision, I went all in and it definitely paid off.”
It certainly did. Dakovich played outside linebacker and wide receiver for last year’s Crusaders, who came back from a 24-0 deficit to defeat West De Pere 37-24 in the WIAA Division 3 state championship in November. According to WisSports.net, he finished the year with 105 tackles (18 for loss) along with two interceptions and two blocked punts. That included a pick-six and also returning a blocked punt for a touchdown.
On defense, Bergan explained there were needs to fill at a particular position last season with spots already filled on the line, at inside linebacker, and in the secondary. That line featured standout 2021 lineman J.C. Latham, who recently transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., while 2020 inside linebacker Ben Kreul committed to Purdue last week. Another linebacker, Luke Hubley, recently committed to Division-II Northern Michigan.
With his frame and intangibles, along with the willingness to be a team player, he found his spot on defense.
“We had a need at the nickel linebacker spot, which is at outside overhang position that he played this year, which is mainly a dropping linebacker,” Bergan said. “We designed some things where we were bringing him off the edge, but it was basically based off of team need and just his athleticism. We like to play guys that have more length on the perimeter on the edges. So a kid with his reach, with his vertical ability, it was kind of a no-brainer to start him at outside linebacker.”
Bergan noted that Dakovich became what the program refers to as a “splitter,” a player who would “spend half of his time on defense, half of his time on offense, and he then was also the only kid that played on all four special-teams units.” As there were openings in certain packages at wide receiver, he also caught 16 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown.
Transitioning back to a sport can take some time, naturally, as Dakovich admitted no one position feels natural at the moment. However, the second contest of the year against Waukesha North—boasting a future 2020 commit in wide receiver Chimere Dike—is the game where he felt he made the right choice and realized he could make an impact. He recorded four total tackles and also blocked a punt that he returned for a touchdown.
“I think a couple games in I realized that if I really focused on it, I could probably be pretty good,” Dakovich said. “Especially after the second game after the blocked punt against North, that was probably when I realized that I was definitely playing the right sport now.”
Bergan, who runs the special teams for Catholic Memorial, noted that punt block as a play early in the year that stood out, but it was also a critical eight-yard touchdown pass Dakovich caught in the third quarter of the Division 3 state title game inside Camp Randall Stadium in November that put points on the board for the Crusaders. The linebacker finished the game with four receptions for 39 yards and the score, along with finishing third on the team with 10 tackles.
“At the end of the year in the state championship game, we’re getting beat 24-0 and he catches the slant pattern across the middle and reaches across the goal line and just pounds the ball on the goal line,” Bergan said. “Then, we end up scoring 37 unanswered points. The kid, just, he’s a ferocious competitor. He made some of those plays in the state championship game, the whole team followed suit.”
Heading into his senior year, both Dakovich and Bergan acknowledged the likely move to tight end. Dakovich mentioned he could end up staying at outside linebacker or playing end on defense, and Bergan said that when talking with Catholic Memorial’s defensive coordinator, they still like the prep standout at outside ‘backer.
“They’re definitely going to have him rushing the passer a lot more this year,” Bergan said. “He has the ability to put his hand down or even just come off the edge out of his two-point stance as a linebacker. Then we’re definitely going to use him a lot more on offense. I mean, he is a kid that will move around at tight end and [we will] try to get matchups for. He’s a physical blocker. He can go up and get the ball. He can catch it and run, and so we’re going to use him on I would imagine just about every special teams [unit].”
Looking ahead to his time at Wisconsin, outside linebacker and tight end could also be the positions Dakovich winds up playing, though he thinks “they’re kind of still up in the air as far as where they want me.”
In one year of football, Dakovich believes he made the biggest progress in getting to know the game further. Heading into what will be his last prep year on the field, he mentioned that he hopes to improve his lateral side-to-side and vertical speed, along with getting off the line quicker.
In Bergan’s eyes, he wants Dakovich to “continue to play violent.”
“When you come, make sure everyone can hear you come,” Bergan said. “Just leave your feet. Leave the ground. Let your athleticism really show. There were times during the year where he was just trying to be a solid football player, and do a solid job on making his fits. But I think next year, you’ll see him leave his feet and be a complete havoc-wreaker because he’s so athletic, he can leave the ground. We’re looking for just a more physical, more violent version of Cole.”