Homegrown talent a source of pride for Badgers

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Former University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez usually drew some chuckles when he explained the program's approach to recruiting.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Former University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez usually drew some chuckles when he explained the program's approach to recruiting.

"Our heart and soul are going to come from Wisconsin," Alvarez, now the school's athletic director, said many times over the years. "But the hands and feet have to come from somewhere else."

That's not so true any more. The UW can find all of the above within state lines, and there's no better evidence of that than the 2006 team.

Of the team's 24 starters -- including specialists -- 13 are Wisconsin natives, the highest number since Alvarez took over the program in 1990. The previous high was 12 in 1992.

Not only are homegrown players making their mark, they're doing so on a team that is ranked No. 5 in the nation by the coaches and set a program record for victories in the regular season with 11. Should they beat Arkansas in Monday's Capital One Bowl, the Badgers (11-1) would become the first team in program history to win 12 games in a season.


"I take pride in that," senior linebacker Mark Zalewski said. "A lot of times during the recruiting process, I think a lot of people don't give Wisconsin high school football credit. A lot of us, we watched when we were little, we watched the whole turnaround under coach Alvarez.

"It's great to be part of a Wisconsin football team that only lost one game during the season."

Wisconsin has always produced its fair share of linemen, so it's no surprise to find four state natives starting on the offensive line -- including Outland Trophy winner and first-team All-American Joe Thomas -- and another starting on the defensive line. But there are also homegrown playmakers like tight end Travis Beckum, wide receiver Luke Swan and cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. It's also important to note that Zalewski and DeAndre Levy help form arguably the UW's most athletic linebacking group ever.

"It really shows that there is talent here in Wisconsin," said Swan, a Fennimore native. "And not only talent, but I think there are guys that are willing to work hard to come in and do all the right things to really be tam players and get things going for a program like this."

Guys like Swan, safety Joe Stellmacher and punter Ken DeBauche, who fought their way from former walk-ons to valuable contributors. You could add non-starters like Zach Hampton, Ben Strickland, Bill Rentmeester and Steve Johnson to the list of players who came to the UW without a scholarship but eventually earned one after cultivating a role.

"It means a lot for us to play for the team that we grew up watching and we're big fans of," Strickland said. "We don't have the world of talent like some of the guys coming in, but it's just the attitude that guys take when they come in here, working day in and day out on the things they've got to get better at."

The UW also has been able to land big-time recruits like Thomas and Beckum. The Badgers added another homegrown blue-chipper in the 2007 recruiting class when Josh Oglesby, thought by some to be the nation's top offensive tackle prospect, verbally committed to the Badgers last spring. Another state star, running back John Clay, has narrowed a long list of college choices to two - Wisconsin and Iowa -- and will announce his decision next Saturday during an all-star game in San Antonio, Texas.

UW coach Bret Bielema, like his predecessor Alvarez, has vowed to make in-state recruiting his top priority. "Wisconsin football is better than ever," said St. Francis coach Doug Sarver, who's one of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's vice presidents. "The players are getting better every year. We're probably at a point now where the talent level is as good as it's ever been."


Sarver probably speaks for thousands of Cheeseheads when he says it's been a joy to watch the Badgers this season. Sure, it's not difficult to like a team that goes 11-1, but it's easier for state fans to take ownership of the team when they see players from Berlin or Wausau or Brookfield or Menasha contributing to the cause.

"It's exciting being able to watch a lot of familiar names, several names that we in the WFCA have seen play in our all-star game," Sarver said. "It's enjoyable to see your own Wisconsin kids, ones that you've read about in high school, playing for the Badgers."

Homegrown heroes

A look at the 13 Wisconsin natives who start for the University of Wisconsin football team.


Travis Beckum: In his first season at tight end, the Milwaukee native and Oak Creek product led the Badgers with 56 catches for 821 yards.

Andy Crooks: Wausau East product converted from linebacker to tight end -- he also played some fullback -- and was valuable as a blocker and pass-catcher (four TDs).

Luke Swan: Fennimore native caught 31 passes for 568 yards and led team with five TD receptions.


Joe Thomas: Brookfield Central product, a three-year starter, was a first-team All-American and won the Outland Trophy. An outstanding left tackle, he's expected to be a top-five pick in April's NFL Draft.

Andy Kemp: Menasha native started all 12 games as a true sophomore at left guard.

Kraig Urbik: Hudson native moved from right tackle to right guard and started all 12 games.

Eric Vanden Heuvel: A high school teammate of Urbik's, he started all 12 games at right tackle and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick.


Nick Hayden: Hartland Arrowhead product has made 25 consecutive starts at defensive tackle.

Mark Zalewski: A two-time captain and three-year starter at linebacker, the Wausau East product led the Badgers with 81 tackles.

DeAndre Levy: Milwaukee Vincent product led the Badgers with six sacks.


Joe Stellmacher: Berlin native, the glue of the Badgers' defense, was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.

Jack Ikegwuonu: Madison Memorial product was named first-team All-Big Ten by the league's coaches.

Special teams

Ken DeBauche: Suamico native and Bay Port product is a three-year starter whose 42.8-yard career average is second-best in school history.

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