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How Wisconsin football assistant Ashley Cornwell bucks doubt on path to NFL coaching career

Cornwell's been working for the football program since July 2019 and is entering her third season as a student assistant coach this fall.

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MADISON — Doubt and surprise often are the undertones of the replies Ashley Cornwell receives when she tells others about her future plans.

The University of Wisconsin senior from Rock Springs is going to be a football coach. Scratch that — she already is a football coach and she's going to continue that career path. She has no time to explain herself to skeptics — she's too busy hustling for her next move.

"I have had people doubt it a lot," Cornwell said. "But I always knew this is where I'm meant to be. I am very religious, and I think God gave me a passion in my heart for this, so I always knew it's going to work out. It's just the patience and praying and just working hard. I know this is going to be my career, so I'm very confident."

Cornwell's been working for the football program since July 2019 and is entering her third season as a student assistant coach this fall. Her ambition helped net her one of 32 Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowships this fall. The Walsh fellowship program places minority coaches onto NFL coaching staffs during training camp in order to establish connections and hopefully lead to increased minority hiring.

There were just 12 women with coaching roles on NFL teams last season, a number the league hopes the Walsh fellowship can increase by exposing teams to qualified candidates and getting those candidates experience on NFL practice fields. Applicants for the Walsh fellowship must have coaching experience at the high school level or above, or be a former NFL player.

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Cornwell will be working for the Tennessee Titans when their training camp begins on July 23, likely aiding offensive coaches on all aspects of the job, such as leading drills in practice, creating film cut-ups and more.

Her connection with the Titans began in March after she was invited to the NFL Women's Forum. She had Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel — a 14-year NFL linebacker with three Super Bowl rings entering his fifth season as the Titans' coach — circled as one of the speakers she wanted to hear. She was assigned to a breakout session with Vrabel, in which she got to ask questions about how he'd scheme a defense against particular red-zone situations.

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"We just had really good dialogue, and I felt good about it," she said. "We just kept it going and that's how I got the fellowship."

Cornwell's love of football was sparked as a child when she played flag football with her twin brother, John. She didn't know how that passion would manifest itself in her life, but found an outlet while in high school when she began helping coach in Reedsburg's program.

That experience led her to spend the latter portion of her senior year in high school applying for any job she could find in the Badgers football program. She was driven to find her way in, believing she would find ways to contribute and immerse herself in the program.

Cornwell's start in the video department taping practices led to her helping out with recruiting, as those teams share a floor in the McClain Center. She began breaking down film of prospects and taking notes for coaches.

Since becoming a student assistant coach, Cornwell has worked on each side of the ball. She started with special teams and continues to aid coaches by charting specialists' work during practices. She's been involved with creating scouting reports, scout-team play cards and putting together teach tape for multiple position groups on offense and defense. Former UW offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph got her involved with the offense and initiated her love for offensive and defensive line play.

She's working with the defensive line this year, her last at the school before graduating in December. She credits the coaching staff for continually pushing her and giving her new challenges, and for exposing her to each phase of the game. That allows her to have an array of experiences to draw upon as she applies for graduate-assistant and entry-level NFL jobs.

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"I'm very blessed I've had a taste of all three phases at Wisconsin," Cornwell said. "I've interacted with the entire staff, I've done stuff for the entire staff, and I'm very lucky they've all been amazing and supportive.

"I'm excited to represent Wisconsin. It means a lot to me, and I just kind of want to show everything that everybody put into me here. I just want to show it paid off and what I can bring to the table. I'm excited to show my work ethic, my eagerness to learn and just to represent the sport and help out the Titans any way I can."

Cornwell describes herself as a hands-on coach, willing to jump into a situation and show exactly how a technique is supposed to be applied.

Even a short conversation with Cornwell reveals her determination. She's got clear goals of becoming a coordinator and knows the steps she must take to reach them. That focus came from her parents, she said. They pushed her to become a first-generation college student and instilled a mentality of never quitting.

"My parents were very driven to make sure that me and my brother did well academically, and anything that we chose to sign up for, we were going to do a good job and we were going to finish it," she said. "When I have a goal in mind, I always make sure I finish it, and I do the best job that I can."

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

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