UW coach Gary Andersen will use the Badgers success in the draft on the recruiting trail.
Capitalizing on success
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The NFL Draft was very good to the University of Wisconsin.
They had five players taken during the three-day event, which was the second most in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s six. This year's group brings the total to 19 players drafted over the last four years, tied with the Buckeyes for the most in the conference. UW added another four to NFL teams as undrafted free agents, giving them 38 former players on league rosters.
That success, while great for those players getting an opportunity at the highest level of the game, is also free advertising for head coach Gary Andersen on the recruiting trail.
“If you look at Wisconsin over the years, we’re right up in there…in the country the last four or five years putting kids in and giving them the opportunity to play in the NFL,” Andersen said on 1070 AM Monday afternoon. “We absolutely can use that in recruiting.”
Realistic or not, most high school players that have a chance for a Division I scholarship believe the NFL is a possibility after their time in college. Those kids take into consideration what happens during the draft in making their decision on where they’ll be spending the next three to five years of their life.
But it’s not just about numbers for Andersen. He wants the recruits to see the type of players that get drafted from Wisconsin. Guys like Chris Borland, who was picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round. He was a 2-star recruit whose work ethic, matched with underrated athleticism, led to him being a three-time All-Big Ten performer and the defensive player of the year in the conference as a senior. A guy who also led the team in community service hours and was a runner up for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best player that contributed as much off the field as he does on.
“To move on to the NFL you can’t just be a really good football player,” Andersen said. “You’ve got to be great at a couple different things. You’ve got to have a good head on your shoulders and you’ve got to be able to think. You’ve got to be able to carry yourself the right way.
“There’s a lot of things that NFL teams are looking for, and obviously, the character, the work ethic, the toughness and the responsibility that Wisconsin football players, and really student athletes at Wisconsin (have), gives them a chance to go on and play at the next level.
“The expectations that everybody has, from coaches to fans to (Athletic Director Barry) Alvarez. There’s high expectations for these kids in life, not just football, and I believe it carries them all to be able to play at their best of their abilities on Saturday’s or Friday’s or whatever it may be.”
This year’s NFL Draft was the highest rated in history. Sure the main stories ended up being the drama around Cleveland drafting Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and the St. Louis Rams historic pick of Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL.
But certainly potential recruits were watching and seeing Borland and Dezmen Southward (Falcons) get picked on the second day of the draft, along with James White (Patriots), Jared Abbrederis (Packers) and Beau Allen (Eagles) come off the board on the third day. Current Badgers, like sophomore Sojourn Shelton, were tweeting about how they couldn’t wait for their moment in future years. High school players that follow them likely take notice of the possibilities that could await them in Madison, among other places.
The football program has come a long way since Alvarez arrived in 1990. In that season, according to sportingcharts.com, the Badgers had 13 players in the NFL. Last year they had 35. They had the league’s defensive player of the year, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, in 2012, and a Super Bowl winning quarterback, the Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson, this past February.
UW is trying to capitalize on the team’s success and the success had by their former players in the NFL. They’ve gone from a program that concentrated on the Midwest, the southern portion of Florida and Texas to an operation that is handing out scholarship offers all over the country. In fact, according to 247Sports.com, their 200 offers currently out there cover 26 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.
“We’re going to keep our core here,” Andersen said of Wisconsin and the Midwest. “But we will branch out. The southeast is becoming more and more important to us. Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and we’re looking hard in those areas for kids and people are starting to get a little better feel of where we are.”
The targeted areas make sense. You go where the talent is produced. In the 2014 draft, Florida produced by the most players taken with 44. California, another state Wisconsin has gotten back into, had 37 guys drafted. They were followed by Texas (25), Georgia (17) and Ohio (11). The state of Wisconsin produced three -- Wautoma's Abbrederis, Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner (Mequon) and Illinois State defensive end Shelby Harris (Mequon).
Part of UW's strategy, it appears, is the idea of getting the program in front of as many eyes as possible. For example, giving out a scholarship to a highly recruited kid from North Carolina in the class of 2015 may not result in his commitment. But just making that particular school and area aware of your program may pay big dividends down the road with another player.
The change to a more national approach seems to have come with the arrival of Andersen and his staff. Scholarship offers during the 2013 recruiting cycle, which were mainly given out by former UW coach Bret Bielema, came in at 110, according to 247Sports.com. A year ago, Andersen gave out 249 offers and appears well on his way to topping that number this year.
“You can do that because the ‘Motion W” carries a lot of power wherever you go. It gives you an opportunity,” Andersen said. “I think we need to branch out a little bit more in the East Coast. I think the young men going to the NFL helps us there. The move national into the West Coast definitely helps us. It gets your name out there one more time for these kids having success.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin