Walk-On U: Wisconsin Badgers' Top Walk-Ons Of The Past 20 Years
Some schools like USC, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma seemingly get all the blue-chip recruits. While that's a slight exaggeration, it's not all that far from the truth.
So where do all the other teams find their players? Most take the second and third tier recruits and hope to catch lightning in a bottle. While Wisconsin does the same, they also have one of the premier walk-on programs in the country.
Over the past 20 years, a number of those players not deemed "good enough" to receive a scholarship have gone through the Badgers' program as walk-ons and emerged on the other side as NFL players. Actually many of the walk-ons at Wisconsin have turned down scholarship offers from smaller programs to become "preferred" walk-ons at UW.
Take a look at this list and see if there any names or faces you recognize.
12) Ben Strickland, Special Teams and DB
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Ben Strickland is certainly not a household name except for maybe in Brookfield, WI. Wisconsin Badger fans do know one thing for sure. He was a demon on special teams. He played in 51 games totalling 72 tackles, eight passes defensed, one interception.
His two most memorable plays came on special teams. The first was a blocked punt and recovery against Arkansas in the 2007 Capitol One Bowl. The second was a recovery of a blocked punt in the end zone against Minnesota in 2005. That touchdown proved to be the winning score.
Strickland was Academic All-Big Ten for four years and was elected a Team Captain by his teammates in 2007.
He is currently working as a graduate assistant on Bret Bielema's staff.
11) Donnel Thompson, Linebacker
Donnell Thompson's journey is a story unto itself. He grew up just a stone's throw away from Camp Randall Stadium. Both he and his brother helped their dad park cars at their home on game days. When he got old enough, he added soda vendor at the stadium to his game day routine.
During his senior year in high school, he broke his right arm early in the season and his recruitment stopped. Wisconsin's head coach at the time, Barry Alvarez, invited Thompson to walk-on.
Following his freshman year, Thompson was offered a scholarship. He became a two-year Team Captain, was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in 1998 and started at OLB on both the 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowl Champion teams. Thompson has referred to the walk-ons at UW as sort of a "secret society."
Thompson was undrafted, but was later signed as a rookie free-agent by the Steelers and played for them during the 2000 season. He also played for the Indianapolis Colts from 2001-2003.
10) Joe Stellmacher, Safety
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Joe Stellmacher, from Berlin, Wisconsin, is another in a long line of Wisconsin Badger walk-on safeties.
His toughness, dependable tackling ability and high football IQ were his trademarks. He was rarely out of position and never shied away from contact during his time at UW.
He was a two-year starter in 2005 and 2006, and was also Honorable Mention All-Big Ten during both of those seasons. In 2006 he was named the team's Co-MVP.
9) TE Matt Katula and Mike Schneck Long-Snappers
Mike Schneck pictured #54
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I decided to lump these two specialists together for one main reason. They accomplished many of the same things including making it to the NFL. These two honed their special craft as Wisconsin Badgers.
Matt Katula red-shirted in 2000 and then played in 48 out of a possible 51 games over four seasons.
He was signed as an undrafted rookie free-agent by the Baltimore Ravens. From 2005-2009 he played in every game for the Ravens. He was released in August 2010, but then was signed by the New England Patriots in November 2010.
Mike Schneck was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted rookie free-agent in 1999. He played for the Steelers for six seasons before moving on to the Buffalo Bills as a free-agent. He was selected to the Pro-Bowl in 2005. He was released by the Bills in 2007 and played the rest of his career for the Atlanta Falcons. He retired in March 2010.
8) Chris Maragos, Safety
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It's amazing that Chris Maragos has made it as far as he has. As a sophomore at Racine Park High School, he was dealing and using drugs and was in serious trouble. He was able to weather that storm and graduated from high school.
He initially walked-on as a WR at Western Michigan, but decided it wasn't the right place for him and transferred to Wisconsin and walked-on there as well. He underwent a position switch to safety and took to it like a duck to water.
In 2008 Maragos was a member of all four special teams and was the the holder for FG's and PAT's. During the Ohio State game in 2009, Maragos scored a rushing touchdown on a fake FG. That season he became a starting safety and was elected a Team Captain. He was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten.
Maragos went undrafted in 2010, but signed with San Fancisco 49ers. He was cut but then added to their practice squad. He was activated from the practice squad just prior to the Niners' game against the Green Bay Packers.
7) Jason Doering, Safety
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Jason Doering was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin and played for the Badgers from 1997-2000.
He started 36 games and amassed 336 tackles along with six interceptions. Was selected as Honorable Mention All-Big Ten 1998 and 1999 and was named Team Captain in 2000. Doering was a member of both 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowl Champion teams.
He was selected in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts 2001-03. In 2002 he made six starts at both S and CB. That same season he made 12 special teams tackles. He was a member of the Washington Redskins in 2004. In total, Doering played in 53 NFL games.
6) Chad Cascadden, Linebacker
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Chad Cascadden was being recruited by major college programs until he missed his senior season at Chippewa Falls HS due to a knee injury. The big schools lost interest as a result.
After red-shirting in 1990 he made the Badgers as a walk-on. In his first two seasons he worked exclusively on the scout team and eventually developed into a special teams standout and starting OLB.
As a junior and senior, he garnered Academic All-Big Ten honors. He was a key member of Wisconsin's 1994 Big Ten Championship team and subsequent Rose Bowl winning squad.
He was signed by the New York Jets as an undrafted rookie and played for them for five seasons. He signed as a free-agent with the New England Patriots in 2000, but retired before ever playing a game for them.
In 64 games with the Jets, Cascadden had 12 starts and recorded eight sacks, four fumble recoveries and one touchdown in addition to his stellar work on special teams.
5) Luke Swan, Wide Receiver
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Luke Swan might be best known for his nickname the "Fennimore Flash." But he was more than just a nickname.
Swan was a walk-on and back-up WR for three seasons. He earned a scholarship and starting WR job in 2006. Six games into his senior season in 2007, Swan severely tore a hamstring that required extensive surgery. It took a full six months to recover.
During his Badger career, Swan totaled 60 receptions for 1046 yards and seven TD's. In 2005 and 2006 he was named Academic All-Big Ten. Additionally in 2006 he was named to the ESPN the Magazine's Academic All-District five team. He was elected a Team Captain by his teammates in 2007.
He attempted to catch on with the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie free-agent, but he was released after only a month with the team. Swan participated in the reality show 4th and Long hosted by Michael Irvin to get a training camp invite with the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately Swan was cut after week four as a result of an injury.
4) J.J. Watt, Defensive End
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J.J. initially chose to attend Central Michigan after also being recruited by Minnesota. Wisconsin had shown no interest at that time. He played in all 14 games for the Chippewas in 2007 as a TE. Not happy with his role in the offense, J.J. transferred to the University of Wisconsin.
There was no scholarship for him at UW, so he worked mopping floors and delivering pizzas. He paid his own way for a year knowing that there was no guarantee he would even make the team. He did.
He started 13 games at DE in 2009. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss with 15.5, five pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and 4.5 sacks
2010 was J.J.'s breakout season. He finished with 21 tackles for loss, 59 total tackles, seven sacks, 10 QB hurries, two fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles, seven passes broken up, eight passes defensed, one INT and three blocked kicks giving him a career total of four.
In 2010 Watt was named to both the AP and SI All-American Second Team. In addition he was a consensus First-Team All-Big Ten, Academic All-Big Ten and the Badgers Team Co-MVP.
Watt was also awarded the Lott IMPACT Trophy given annually to the player who exhibits the characteristics Ronnie Lott embodied during his NFL career: integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity. Watt has already started his own charity to assist local elementary and middle schools that lack sufficient funding.
Watt will soon have a big decision to make: go pro or stay for his senior season. Inquiring minds want to know.
3) Mark Tauscher, Offensive Tackle
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Mark Tauscher walked on to the Wisconsin Badgers football team in 1995. He didn't letter until 1998 and didn't become a starter until 1999, his senior season.
During the 1999 season Tauscher showed everyone that the kid could play. He was an instrumental part of what was the Ron Dayne Heisman Machine. And yes Dayne did win the Heisman Trophy that season. Tauscher was a member of the1999 and 2000 Rose Bowl Champion teams as well.
He was drafted in the seventh Round of the 2000 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers. He became a starter at right tackle as a rookie just several weeks into the season. In 2002 Tauscher suffered a torn ACL and MCL and missed the remainder of the season. After returning from that injury, he played in 57 consecutive games before injuring his groin in 2006. He suffered another knee injury in 2008 and was also put on injured reserve in 2010. In 11 seasons with the Packers Tauscher has played in 134 games of which 132 have been starts.
2) Joe Panos, Offensive Tackle
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Joe Panos started out his college football career as a defensive tackle at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III program.
At the time, Panos chose to transfer to Wisconsin, UW was in a transition to new head coach Barry Alvarez' way of running a football program. It was a difficult time, but Panos was able to gain the trust of Coach Alvarez. The coach trusted Panos so much, that he allowed him to be in charge of policing his teammates. Panos made sure everyone was on the same page and always emphasized the team came first.
Panos played in 32 consecutive games at UW. In 1992 he was named second Team All-Big Ten. His senior season (1993) was a big one. Panos was named 1st team All-Big Ten as well as 2nd Team All-American. He was also a Co-Captain of the 1994 Rose Bowl Champion team.
Panos was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1994 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. That season he was named to the NFL All-Rookie Team. He played in Philadelphia from 1994-1997. Panos moved on to the Buffalo Bills and played as a Bill from 1998-2000. In total Panos played in 83 NFL games of which 56 were as a starter.
1) Jim Leonhard, Safety
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If you saw any Wisconsin Badger game while Jim Leonhard was playing, at some point you must have heard the announcers refer to tiny Tony, Wisconsin. As of the 2000 census, Tony, Wisconsin had a population of 105. That is where all 5' 8" of Jim Leonhard is from.
Leonhard had no Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school and decided to walk-on at Wisconsin. It turned out he wasn't very big and not exceptionally fast, but he could play football. In his sophomore year he entrenched himself as a starting safety and punt returner and never let go.
He tied the school record for career interceptions with 21 and tied the Big Ten record of 11 interceptions in a season. He was also named First Team All-Big Ten from 2002-2004. Additionally Leonhard was named a CNN/SI All-American in 2002.
Despite all of those accolades, Leonhard went undrafted, but was signed by the Buffalo Bills. He spent three seasons in Buffalo and then moved to the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. In 2009 he signed a three year contract with the New York Jets to be a starting safety and became the heart of their defense. He has also continued to excel in his punt return duties.
Leonhard broke his tibia in a collision in practice on 12/3/10 putting him out for the year. The very next game the Jets got pasted by the Patriots 45-3. Coincidence? I think not.