Although Joe Ferguson was one of the better quarterbacks to come out of Madison Memorial high school, it would be his decision to also play safety during high school that would allow him to continue to play football in college.
Ferguson grew up in a football family, with his father playing quarterback in high school, and eventually would play linebacker for Nebraska. Ferguson’s grandfather is Barry Alvarez, who also played linebacker for Nebraska before beginning his coaching career.
When he was young, Ferguson loved being on the field, and would often try to find ways to keep playing the sport, even when it wasn’t his turn to be on the field. That is how Ferguson would eventually become the starting safety for his high school team — he was just trying to find a way to stay on the field a little longer.
“Ever since I’ve played football I’ve always played both ways,” Ferguson said. “In high school, when I became the starting quarterback, I played safety as well. It got to the point where our offense was so important, that we needed to score, that they didn’t want me to get too tired or didn’t want me to get hurt, so I had to stop playing defense.”
Ferguson was impressive as a quarterback for Madison Memorial, and was frequently one of the best quarterbacks in the state. Despite an impressive performance during his four years in high school, Ferguson was not getting many looks from collegiate scouts.
With mostly Division II or Division III schools offering him quarterback positions, and no better offers coming from any Division I schools, Ferguson was put in an awkward position. Either he would play at a less competitive level of football, but continue playing the position he loves, or forgoing a sure thing for the chance to be a walk-on at a bigger university.
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Looking back at it now, one of the things that Ferguson remembers most about the opportunity was how humbling it would be for him. Challenging himself to play at a Division I school wouldn’t come easy for him, but Ferguson knew that it would make him stronger in the long run.
“The only schools that were talking to me were Division III and Division II schools,” Ferguson said. “Who I am as a person, I thought I was better than that. I wanted to go to the big schools, but none of them were really talking to me. It was kind of a humbling experience.”
One of the hardest spots for a walk-on to gain a roster spot in is quarterback, and Ferguson wanted to play football more than he wanted to be a quarterback. He decision to play safety in high school would allow for him to keep his dream of playing collegiate football alive.
Ferguson would be granted a walk-on spot as a safety back in 2013, although his first season with the Badgers would be cut short by an injury. The next few years would see Ferguson steadily working his way up the Wisconsin roster, going from a special team player in 2013 to a second string safety in 2017.
Ferguson’s time as a quarterback would help him immensely during his time at Wisconsin, giving him insight into offense formations and allowing him to see gaps in coverage better. Having this kind of knowledge is something many players spend years building, but Ferguson would wind up gaining this knowledge unintentionally in high school.
“Playing offense and being a quarterback gave me a jump start. It helped a ton, especially reading quarterback’s eyes and understanding route trees and what receivers are trying to do,” Ferguson said.
While Ferguson might have played both positions in high school, one thing that he had to get used to was being more mobile on the field.
Even though Ferguson might have been considered a running quarterback in high school, getting used to the amount of running that a safety has to do during the average game was still a bit of a struggle for him.
“In high school, I was a running quarterback, but I would never run during practice — I would just throw,” Ferguson said. “Come Friday I would be so gassed. It’s been different now. I feel like a lot more of an athlete now.”
Ferguson has become quite the safety during his time at Wisconsin, earning the school’s longest interception with a 99-yard carry during the 2017 opening game against Utah State. Ferguson has been showing that he is capable of making some major plays as a safety, including four interceptions gaining a grand total of 136 yards thus far this season.
While Ferguson is happy with his career at Wisconsin, there is still a part of him that misses the days when he was at the helm of the team. Being a quarterback will always be special to him, but getting to play for Wisconsin has made the sacrifice all worth it in the end.
Even though Ferguson said he still “fantasizes” about being quarterback again,”moving to safety was the right choice for him.
“I miss scoring touchdowns, that was my favorite thing about playing football, but had I played quarterback who knows what would have happened,” Ferguson said. “I wanted to do was play, and I’ve been able to do that.”