BY ANDY BAGGOT
MADISON, Wis. — How important is the walk-on program to the Wisconsin football team?
Let's start with some math.
UW has 85 scholarships to dispense, but can have as many as 120 players on the roster during the season.
"That's a big chunk of your team that are not on scholarship," senior director of operations and recruiting Andrew Marlatt said. "You can really help your team by having a good walk-on program."
The Badgers have known, cultivated and prospered from that reality for years, an annual process that unfolded Wednesday during National Signing Day.
In addition to 19 scholarship student-athletes who signed National Letters of Intent, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst added 10 walk-ons who signed Acceptance of Admission forms.
Four of those are preferred walk-ons who will be added to the roster as soon as preseason camp opens in August: Ethan Cesarz, an inside linebacker from Delavan (Delavan-Darien); Matt Henningsen, a defensive end from Menomonee Falls; Hunter Johnson, a tailback from Darlington; and Josh Seltzner, an offensive tackle from Columbus.
Marlatt said the other walk-ons have been told they have a roster spot, but could be bumped into the preferred category if injuries or attrition crop up between now and the end of the summer.
That group includes Michael Balisteri, a defensive end from Grafton; Jake Collins, an inside linebacker from Merrill; Sam DeLany, a wide receiver from Delafield (Kettle Moraine); Collin Larsh, a kicker from Marshall (Monona Grove); Blake Smithback, a guard from Waunakee; and Coy Wanner, an athlete from Green Bay (Preble).
"We very clearly communicate to the walk-on what kind of walk-on they are," Marlatt said.
That designation comes after a months-long evaluation process that typically involves more than 100 walk-on candidates.
Marlatt said Chryst and his staff try to let prospects know of their walk-on status during the summer before their senior year of high school so other options can be weighed.
"We say, 'Hey, we don't have a scholarship for you, but things could change,'" Marlatt said. "We say that to all of them because things really can change."
There might be a transfer or an injury or a de-commitment.
"We don't start placing them in those (walk-on) tiers until December or January," Marlatt said.
Walk-ons are a big deal at Wisconsin. Nineteen have gone on to play in the NFL since 1990. Nine front-liners for the Badgers last season, including six with starting experience, were former walk-ons who earned scholarships. That includes a co-captain, tailback Dare Ogunbowale, and the Most Valuable Offensive Player in the Cotton Bowl, tight end Troy Fumagalli.
After the 2015 season, three former UW walk-ons – wide receiver Alex Erickson, outside linebacker Joe Schobert and quarterback Joel Stave – wound up being employed by NFL teams.
Chryst said the best part about the walk-on program – it has roots to 1990 when current UW Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez began a 16-season run as head football coach – is its enduring legacy.
"If it's just a story that has a start and an end, it only lasts for so long," he said. "But you have a chapter every year and kids know that."
Photo: Wisconsin Badgers
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