At Wisconsin, the five star recruits, big name coaches and national media usually aren’t lured to the bright lights of Camp Randall.
So it’s no surprise that a hardworking, severely undervalued player like Badger wide receiver Jared Abbrederis somehow went two seasons without a full athletic scholarship. At Wisconsin, several of the most reliable, consistent players who have played essential roles in leading Bret Bielema’s squad to back-to-back appearances in Pasadena are guys who were barely recruited in high school, players whose Rivals.com profiles consist of nothing more than a brief description and a “no rating” classification.
Abbrederis — who was finally awarded a scholarship Monday — led the team with 933 receiving yards in 2011 and snagged just nine fewer receptions than senior No. 1 wideout Nick Toon. UW fans’ freshest memory of the redshirt sophomore may be his sideline fumble on a potential game-winning drive in the Rose Bowl, but there’s little chance the Badgers would find themselves in the Granddaddy of Them All without Abbrederis reeling in Russell Wilson’s passes. Additionally, Abbrederis led all receivers with 119 yards and a single endzone grab.
Although it’s certainly surprising that it took Abbrederis two and a half years (one redshirt season and two years officially suiting up for the cardinal and white), the overachieving walk-on has become a staple of Wisconsin football. From Chris Maragos to J.J. Watt to Abbrederis — along with a host of other Badger greats — nothing better exemplifies Bielema’s program than the talented athletes who are forced to prove themselves before being handed a coveted scholarship. Largely, in-state products who dreamt of donning a helmet with the motion “W,” like the Wautoma, Wis., native Abbrederis, have helped push the football program to new heights.
Wisconsin is often known for its hard-nosed running backs and motivated, high-motor players on defense. The sideline is blanketed not by players with eye-popping athleticism and even bigger egos, but by skilled athletes who were often overlooked by other major Division I programs. Walk-on athletes like Abbrederis who are accustomed to earning each moment they spend on the field are often able to make a tremendous impact by their sheer commitment to constantly improving.
Nebraska may have the best-known walk-on tradition, regularly producing quality players under legendary former coach Tom Osborne, but a tradition of its own is developing in Madison.
With a program that Bielema loves to describe as “not sexy,” it’s no coincidence that walk-ons find much success on the Camp Randall sidelines. One former walk-on standout is New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard, who has turned into a ball-hawking starter for the New York Jets. Watt, whose well-known story included a stint delivering pizzas, arrived at Wisconsin as a walk-on in 2009 and transformed himself into a top 15 pick in the NFL draft in two short years.
It is precisely this attitude that has fostered an extensive history of success from walk-ons, as most of them didn’t have the stellar numbers or didn’t fit the physical mold to gain serious attention from the nation’s top programs. At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, the talented young Abbrederis, who started as a quarterback in high school, didn’t have the build to be a top-flight receiver in the Big Ten — or so the college scouts thought. Walk-ons are the same guys who made all-conference teams in high school, who proved they had the talent to take their game to the next level, but simply weren’t projected as top talent.
Instead, Abbrederis has become the Badgers’ do-it-all player. Filling in as UW’s primary punt and kick returner when he wasn’t running slant routes, it’s hard to argue that the redshirt sophomore wasn’t one of the most important players on the roster this season. Ranking ninth in the country with 315 return yards this season and one touchdown, Abbrederis made a name for himself as one of the premier returners in the conference.
But the underdog attitude that walk-ons like Abbrederis and defensive tackle Ethan Hemer bring to practice every day has undoubtedly helped bring the Badgers success over the last two decades. While other Badgers may feel comfortable taking it easy in practice, players like Abbrederis are crucial to making sure practices run at full speed with a level of competitiveness comparable to that of a real game.
Bielema simply carried over the development of walk-ons from fabled head coach Barry Alvarez, and the results have clearly shown through between the hash marks. This isn’t to say that walk-ons alone are responsible for turning around a program that was formerly a Big Ten bottom dweller, but it’s certainly a key part of the victorious formula.
As the ever-consistent wideout makes the transition from walk-on to former walk-on, its important to realize the critical role they play in turning Wisconsin into a truly elite program. There is no player on the UW roster — perhaps in all of college football — more deserving of a scholarship than Abbrederis. But, spending two years as a walk-on despite appearing in every single game over the past two seasons is the approach that has taken the Badgers to new heights in recent years. The walk-on attitude extends well beyond singular players to the coaching staff and even the program itself.
His reign as the star walk-on has ended, but come fall another unexpected star will likely fill the place of Abbrederis and become an instant fan favorite with Badger fans. Just remember, it’s all part of the winning formula.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you think that Wisconsin’s tradition of turning walk-ons into stars has been crucial to two straight Rose Bowl berths? Let him know at [email protected] or tweet @imccue.