MADISON, Wis. — Scan Wisconsin’s entire 113-man football roster, and not one player comes close to matching the diminutive stature of 5-foot-8, 170-pound wide receiver Kenzel Doe.
Backup defensive backs stand 5-11. Even the team’s starting place kicker is 6-1, 193 pounds.
But Doe possesses several qualities that make him stand out in a crowd.
“Small guy but big heart,” Badgers running back Montee Ball said. “He brings it every day in practice. I kept telling him, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing in practice and it’ll show up in the game.’ And it has.”
Doe, a sophomore, was responsible for perhaps the biggest play of last Saturday’s game against Utah State, returning a third-quarter punt 82 yards for a touchdown. The play trimmed Wisconsin’s deficit to 14-10 and swung momentum back in the Badgers’ favor. Wisconsin went on to snatch a 16-14 come-from-behind victory.
“It was really good for his confidence to kind of keep building him up, and it was a shot in the arm that we needed to win that game,” Badgers wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “If he doesn’t do that, we probably don’t win that game.”
Doe’s presence at Wisconsin is a testament to his hard work and unwavering desire to earn a Division I scholarship. He was a solid receiver at Reidsville High School in North Carolina and helped guide the team to three state championships. During his senior season, Doe caught 56 passes for 980 yards and 15 total touchdowns. He also was named the defensive player of the game during the state finals that year.
Despite Doe’s talent, every college program in the country overlooked him — Division I or otherwise — and Doe believes his lack of size was a contributing factor.
“When I graduated high school, I didn’t have one scholarship offer,” Doe said. “That’s when I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to even a D-II or a D-III or anything.’ I was just going to walk on probably at a school back at home.”
Undeterred, Doe set out to find a prep school that might offer him another year to develop and gain national attention. During that time, Doe’s stepfather read an article about Otis Yelverton, the head coach at Oak Ridge Military School, located in Oak Ridge, N.C. Yelverton had a history of producing Division I players off his team, and Doe soon became a part of the program.
Yelverton passed along a highlight tape to former Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle, who hailed from the same area as Doe and played football at Rockingham County in Reidsville.
While at Oak Ridge, Doe received his only scholarship offers from Oregon State and Wisconsin. He initially picked Oregon State, but after a visit to Wisconsin and dozens of letters from the coaching staff, he changed his mind.
“I knew they saw something in me,” Doe said. “So I’m like ‘OK, once I get there, I’ve got to prove myself because of the fact that I’m short. Since Day 1, I’ve been trying to come out here and prove myself. Just because I’m small, I can still do things that other people can’t do. They gave me an opportunity and I’m blessed to have it.”
Since coming to Wisconsin a semester early in January 2011, Doe’s game has taken off. He was one of three true freshmen to earn a letter last season, although he played sparingly.
This season, with a young crop of wide receivers, Doe has emerged as the team’s speedy slot receiver, primarily entering the game in third-down situations. Through three games, he has four catches for 30 yards.
“When I get the ball, I try to get up the field vertical or make somebody miss to get to the chains, try to finish each and every time I get the ball in my hands,” Doe said. “I feel like I’ve improved by knowing the plays. I know all three receiver positions, even if I’m just playing the slot.”
Azzanni noted that while Doe is aware of his size, he sees himself as a football player above all else.
“He knows what he is,” Azzanni said. “If he wasn’t fast, yeah, he’d be in trouble. But he’s quick, so he knows his strengths.”
Speed, coupled with Doe’s improved decision-making skills, have now made him a serious threat as a punt returner as well. His touchdown runback against Utah State was just the second punt return of Doe’s college career.
As a result of his success, Doe is listed as the starting punt return man for Wisconsin’s game against Texas-El Paso on Saturday. He continues to fill in for Jared Abbrederis, who missed last week’s game after suffering a mild concussion.
Considering Abbrederis ranked third in the country last season in punt return average (15.8 yards), it’s a big step for Doe. And Abbrederis has continued to offer encouragement.
“He did a great job making a big play on that punt return,” Abbrederis said. “He came off on the sideline, and I hit him in the head and congratulated him. I was excited about what he did on the punt return.”
Doe doesn’t know how long he’ll be on punt return duty, but he’s trying to cherish each moment and realize just how far he’s come.
“It’s crazy,” Doe said. “Me and my mom were talking about that the other day. I called her after the game and she was crying because of the fact that she saw me score. It’s just crazy how I went from nothing to making a big play on Saturday. She was very proud. I was very proud.
“Everybody back home was like ‘Kenzel, I can’t believe it. You didn’t have anything and now look at you.’ I’ve just got to keep working. I can’t just settle for that. I’ve got to do more.”