Linebacker Ethan Armstrong spends his career on the field in the shadow of two of Wisconsin’s top defensive stoppers. He’s the new face in the backfield; the third wheel on a unit stacked with talent.
But this summer he finally earned due recognition for two years of regular, on-the-field action. In a team meeting two weeks into fall camp, head coach Bret Bielema finally handed the redshirt junior a scholarship Aug. 14. Before Armstrong could even pull himself out of his seat, his teammates had already erupted in cheers.
“You immediately know how much he means to the team when you hear the roar of his teammates when that was announced,” linebackers coach Andy Buh said. “It was a real proud moment for me being his coach just a short time here, knowing how badly he wanted that and how hard he’s worked over the years to be in that position.”
As seen on the Badgers’ YouTube series “The Camp,” the raucous atmosphere quickly turned silent as he addressed the team on what the scholarship meant to him. The comments were brief, substituting raw emotion for an eloquent speech.
It was just another link in the walk-on tradition engrained in this program since the Alvarez reign. Yet there was an added dose of excitement from teammates, those who observe his unquenchable work ethic and realize that he earned that starting outside linebacker spot alongside the two biggest names on UW’s defense.
The typical walk-on policy at Wisconsin is to spend two years on the team and, if that player has turned into a serious contributor, earn a shot at a scholarship. But that all changed last summer.
The third walk-on in his class to earn a scholarship – the two others were wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and defensive tackle Ethan Hemer in January – he had any chance at a full ride tossed aside when star quarterback Russell Wilson arrived last July. It was perhaps overdue, but the two players ahead of him who first earned the prize had even stronger cases after starting all 14 games for Wisconsin in 2011.
Though he admits it was a somewhat frustrating situation, he understood the unique situation and the potential of a team that would go on to lose the Rose Bowl with the N.C. State transfer under center.
With a style his backup Connor O’Neill describes as “100 mph every single play,” he has the quintessential traits of a walk-on player. Armstrong, who played in 12 games and started two last year before injuries kept him out of Wisconsin’s final two games, is the guy who doesn’t know how to tone it down in practice.
But that fiery style is absent when the topic of the scholarship comes up, as he lets out a quick chuckle and flashes a grin. Initially filled with surprise at Bielema’s announcement, Armstrong’s focus quickly turned outside the locker room.
“I was just really excited for my family, just couldn’t wait to tell them,” he said. “I knew how much they had given up for me, how they had supported me through all of this.”
With a parted layer of brown curly hair, Armstrong – called “Army” by teammates – doesn’t exactly look the part of jacked-up Big Ten linebacker. But O’Neill says his carefree personality off the field changes radically when he steps in between the painted lines, perhaps releasing the frustration of being pushed aside by major college recruiters.
“He’s pretty intense,” O’Neill, also a redshirt junior, said. “You watch him play, he gets hyped, he gets in other dudes faces. It’s awesome watching him play.”
Armstrong gained his career first collegiate start in a season-opener over Northern Iowa Saturday, finishing with three tackles.
Buh, in his first year in Wisconsin, says nothing has changed in the outside linebacker’s play since that career-changing moment. The achievement he spent three years working toward is now behind him, but the attitude and playing style that got him this far didn’t disappear with the prize put away.
“They believe in you, they’ve given you that scholarship and it gives you a lot more confidence,” Armstrong said after practice Wednesday night. “It doesn’t take that chip away – you were
always that walk-on, you’re still a walk-on at heart and definitely got that fire burning.”
Though not one of the big names fans are eyeing to step up on defense, his first year as an every-game starter could make this the year Armstrong blossoms. His 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame could compliment Borland’s speed and Taylor’s power to break through the line nicely.
The ugly 26-21 win over the Panthers was not a sparkling debut for a linebacking unit that allowed two touchdown passes to the running back coming out of the backfield. Armstrong says the defense has focused on the mental preparations in practice to avoid the broken coverage that cost the Badgers dearly against Northern Iowa.
Now it’s but a footnote in the struggles Armstrong has faced to reach this point. He can now call himself a scholarship, starting Big Ten linebacker.
“I think that’s pretty special for a guy, to be able at the end of the day to say he earned that scholarship,” Buh said. “He literally, in all senses of the word, earned it.”