While two straight losses have certainly quieted the hype about Wisconsin developing into a premier football program, it’s clear the Badgers are still establishing a national reputation that has them attracting some of the best players in the nation.
Bret Bielema and co. are often known for picking up the guys who are overlooked by the big names of the SEC — the three-star, hard-nosed players — and developing them into some of the best players at their position in college football. Players such as standout Badger linebacker Mike Taylor, a two-star recruit who has turned into one of UW’s top playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, offer a prime example of what Wisconsin is all about. While most schools battle to lock up the speedy and flashy players that abound at the nation’s top high school programs, UW’s program has been known for picking up the so-called blue collar guys whose hard work leads them to success between the hashmarks.
But, that’s all starting to change as the Badgers begin to build a nationally recognized brand of football. Although it might not be the best time to say this following two brutal losses that crushed the national attention the Badgers were receiving, Wisconsin is starting to earn consideration from big-time recruits across the country. UW is usually able to bring in the best players in the state, including five-star tackle Josh Ogelsby in 2007, but often struggles to bring the best players from other parts of the country to Madison.
For the class of 2012, Wisconsin has already received commitments from six four-star recruits, a noticeable improvement over last year’s three, especially considering that it is barely November. Perhaps most notable among these top-notch high school players is California native and quarterback Bart Houston, a player who could soon find himself in the driver’s seat of the Badger offense. With several offers from several Pac-12 schools already on the line, Houston decided to spend his career in the comforts of Camp Randall before the end of his junior year. Likely turning down future offers from the top programs in the country, Houston is a prime example of a player that would likely not have considered Wisconsin just a couple years back.
Another big name pickup for the Badgers in 2012 is tackle J.J. Denman, an imposing character at 6-foot-7, 305 lbs., who turned down the likes of Penn State (his hometown squad), Notre Dame, Miami (Fla.) and South Carolina. Committing to the Badgers just two weeks ago (back when there were still dreams of a national championship appearance), Denman is another player who doesn’t fit the classic mold of a Wisconsin recruit.
Denman signing up to wear the ‘Motion W’ made for three four-star offensive linemen coming in 2012, as he is joined by guard Dan Voltz and tackle Kyle Dodson. Though finding big, talented bodies for the O-line has never been much of an issue, getting an out-of-state player sought after by some of the best programs in the country shows just how far the Wisconsin program has come. After all, at a school with such a strong commitment to pounding the ball on the ground, perhaps there is no better place to show your ability in the trenches than as a member of Bielema’s offense.
While this recruiting breakthrough can be at least partly attributed to having the right combination of personalities on the coaching staff, it’s also a serious testament to the fact that Wisconsin is rapidly gaining respect across the nation. Before coaches can even think about trying to bring in a player being recruited by the powerhouses of the Big 12 and SEC, they have to prove that their squad can regularly produce on the field.
Critics of today’s overhyped recruiting process may point out that national rankings are entirely subjective and don’t indicate how a player will fare at the college level. For years, UW relied on this notion, signing underrated and overlooked players who couldn’t be happier to sign with a serious contender such as Wisconsin. It’s certainly true that the recruiting system has plenty of faults and is in no way indicative of how they will transition to the next level, but signing the big names proves just how valuable playing in games such as the Rose Bowl can be.
After two consecutive 10-plus-win seasons, and another one likely on the way (they can’t lose to Purdue, right?), Badger fans shouldn’t be surprised that UW’s success on the field is attracting the top talent in the nation. As ESPN announcers tossed Wisconsin’s name around in the national title conversation, they basically offered free advertising for the UW program. Little things like Russell Wilson’s pitch that more players should consider Wisconsin in ESPN’s “Year of the Quarterback: Depth Chart” documentary can have a surprisingly large impact on recruits that are receiving loads of recruiting letters every day.
As the Badgers start to cash in on their recent success, it seems like they are destined to continue to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten. The tear-jerking losses to Ohio State and Michigan State have fans down on the program right now, but there is still plenty to look forward to. Sure, these guys might be nothing more than big names with way too much hype and unreal comparisons attached to their name, but great teams start with great recruiting.
Wisconsin fans have always taken pride in the fact that their program is built on hard-working, overachieving players, but perhaps it’s time for a change of attitude. As Badger fans are starting to expect an annual trip to Pasadena, it’s clear that the reputation of the Bielema’s program isn’t just changing in Madison.