MADISON, Wis. — Here’s a story about a small-school Wisconsin prep football player who earns first-team all-conference honors as a defensive back and quarterback. He doesn’t garner a single Division I scholarship offer and chooses to attend the University of Wisconsin as a walk-on. He spends his first season on the scout team and converts into a wide receiver. By Year 2, his football IQ and knack for catching passes proves so valuable that coaches can’t keep him off the field.
If you guessed Jared Abbrederis, you’d be right. But if you guessed Alex Erickson, that, too, would be correct.
“There’s a lot of parallels there,” said Erickson, a redshirt freshman. “The biggest thing I’m trying to do is establish that work ethic that he has. If you’re out here watching practice, you know he’s one of the hardest working guys out here, he’s flying up and down the field, he sacrifices his body for the team. You can learn a lot from him.”
Erickson, apparently, has learned quite well because he’s been turning heads during the Badgers’ entire fall camp. He has been so good that Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Erickson would “definitely” earn playing time this season following the team’s second open scrimmage on Monday.
“He’ll be in that rotation, and (I’m) proud of the way he’s gone through camp and fought,” Andersen said.
During the scrimmage, Erickson caught four passes for 41 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown from quarterback Curt Phillips. One of the only other players with more receiving yards? Abbrederis, the fifth-year senior who had two catches for 59 yards.
Erickson, a 6-foot, 198-pound native of Darlington, Wis., has worked his way into a wide receiver rotation that will feature Abbrederis, Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe, among others. One of his biggest tasks, he said, was to demonstrate the kind of consistency that would make quarterbacks want to throw his way in tight coverage against a defensive back, and that began by establishing timing with the signal callers in the summer.
It certainly carried over into August, where he has built that trust even further.
“When the ball is thrown his way, he’s coming down with the football,” Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.
Added Erickson: “This is a game about emotion. You’ve got to be confident, especially in yourself. When it comes down to it, it’s 1-on-1, you versus that defensive back. So when the ball is in the air, you’ve got to believe in yourself and have the confidence and trust that you can get that ball.”
As a senior at Darlington High, Erickson was almost unstoppable on offense. He rushed for nearly as many yards (1,239) as he had passing (1,250) and scored 33 touchdowns. He also tallied 50 tackles and three interceptions as a safety and cornerback. When he arrived at Wisconsin, he was asked to choose which side of the ball he wanted to play.
Erickson had never played a snap at wide receiver before, but he wanted to remain on offense and figured it was the best way to get on the field. So he spent his first season soaking up everything, from how to properly catch passes and run routes to film study.
“A lot of it was learning,” Erickson said. “The technique of route running is a lot more challenging than most people think. It’s been a process, and it’s taken time.”
Abbrederis, a Wautoma, Wis., native, has been there to show Erickson and other wide receivers the steps necessary to succeed. He has made a point of reminding them about the value of hard work and the ability to embrace coaching criticism as a means to an end.
Abbrederis, of course, has turned himself into one of the all-time best wide receivers in Wisconsin history and eventually earned a scholarship by heeding such advice. He was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick last season, ranks eighth in school history in receiving yards (2,059) and is tied for sixth in touchdown catches (16).
Erickson can only hope his production ultimately mirrors that of Abbrederis, but Abbrederis recognizes his teammate is off to a good start.
“He’s made most of the plays that came his way,” Abbrederis said. “Some of the tough ones, contested ones, he went up and got. He’s just learning and watches film and takes coaching points and puts it into action on the field. He’s done a really good job with that, getting better each day, and we kind of knew in the summer how he was working and some of his abilities. He’s been impressive this fall camp.”
Much of the talk during fall camp — and, really, all of last season — was that Wisconsin had not developed a No. 2 wide receiver threat to complement Abbrederis. A year ago, Abbrederis often faced double teams, and the Badgers’ passing game stalled. Erickson said he hadn’t spent much time considering what others thought of the team’s wide receiver group.
“Not really,” he said. “I’m not a big social media guy, so I’m not into it too much. Still, you’ve got to have that chip on your shoulder that it’s there. Extra motivation is always good. Not that we’re not motivated. But just having that there, too, just pushing you everyday reminding you, be that extra guy, somebody step up.
“That’s what the coaches are looking for and other teammates are looking for. As a core we’re coming out here, grinding and trying to make plays.”
Few have done it better than Erickson, which is why you can expect to see him on the field at wide receiver plenty this season.