MADISON, Wis. — Twenty-four hours later, and Joe Schobert would have been on his way to North Dakota, a potential in-state diamond in the rough having slipped through the fingertips of Wisconsin’s football program.
That’s how close Schobert came to playing football somewhere else last summer. He was all set for a 10-hour Monday drive from Waukesha, Wis., to Grand Forks, N.D., when he received a phone call on a Sunday from former Badgers coach Bret Bielema. Schobert had only recently applied to Wisconsin, and he hadn’t officially been accepted. But Bielema informed him with great confidence that Schobert would get into school if he stuck around.
“It was crazy,” Schobert said. “It was so late. My mom didn’t want me to be out of school for three or four months.”
Schobert had a choice to make: Leave or hold out hope things would work out at the program he grew up idolizing. Really, it wasn’t much of a choice in his mind.
“Being a Wisconsin kid, it’s a dream to play here no matter what,” he said. “So it was something I jumped at.”
Wisconsin’s coaching staff is awfully glad he did.
Schobert, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker from Waukesha West, has quickly moved up the depth chart in his second season with the team. During spring practices, he was slotted as the team’s No. 2 outside linebacker — a position he continues to hold in the first week of fall practices.
That Schobert is here at all is somewhat of a surprise. He did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer and drew only mild interest from Wisconsin despite a stellar high school career. Schobert was a two-time all-state selection as a free safety and running back. He rushed for more than 3,800 yards with 51 touchdowns and broke former Wisconsin tailback John Clay’s state championship record with 296 yards rushing in the 2010 WIAA Division I title game.
But it wasn’t until an exceptional showing during the annual Wisconsin Football Coaches Association all-star game for big schools last July that the Badgers became interested.
“A bunch of my coaches on the team had good connections here,” Schobert said. “The week of practice they were like, ‘Where are you going Schoby?’ I told them I was walking on at North Dakota. They couldn’t believe it. So they reached out to all the coaches they knew and were like, ‘Take a look at this guy during the game.'”
Wisconsin’s coaches were among those impressed with Schobert’s performance as a running back, safety and a kick returner during the game. He tallied an interception and finished with a game-high 145 all-purpose yards. Afterward, he garnered interest from North Dakota State and Northern Illinois, along with Wisconsin, but the Badgers were his clear choice.
Last season, Schobert appeared in eight games as a true freshman, primarily on special teams. While on the scout team, he settled in at inside linebacker and occasionally played on the outside depending on the opponent the starters were preparing for. Schobert said those moments helped him with footwork and hand placement, which has made the transition to outside linebacker easier this season.
Schobert’s play has impressed Badgers coach Gary Andersen, who has moved him from the boundary linebacker to the field linebacker, where Schobert is in position to serve as Ethan Armstrong’s backup. On Wednesday, with Armstrong out of practice, Schobert started with the first-team defense.
“He deserves to play after spring,” Andersen said at the team’s media day last week. “Everywhere we put him, he just simply made plays. …
“He’s young. Obviously, didn’t play a lot last year, involved on special teams and did some good things. But he’s a very athletic young man, and his expectations of himself are high.”
Schobert said he spent his offseason studying the playbook and becoming more aware of his responsibilities as a field linebacker, which requires a player to play in space and on the end line of scrimmage. His smarts, coupled with his tremendous athleticism, have made him stand out.
“You’ve got to make a couple plays here or there and show them you have playmaking ability,” Schobert said. “Coaches like that, and they’ll give you more reps. That’s kind of what happened.”
Schobert switched his number this season from 42, which he wore during the spring game, to 58 because that is the number worn by his favorite player, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Not a bad guy to admire considering Miller finished third in the NFL last season with 18 1/2 sacks.
“Really, what Joe’s just done is put his head down and worked,” Badgers outside linebacker Brendan Kelly said. “He’s not a kid that’s trying to be real flashy. He doesn’t say a lot when you talk to him. Really nice kid. You’re never going to have a problem from Joe.
“On the field, he’s making his presence known. Every single day he comes out here and works. He’s starting to make some plays. Hopefully he continues on that path. He’ll be a good player.”
Schobert’s career trajectory is headed in the right direction as he begins his sophomore season. But he is simply grateful to have the opportunity to fulfill a dream he didn’t think possible last summer.
“It’s crazy when I do think back to it and be like, ‘Wow, a year ago I had no clue where I was going,'” Schobert said. “And now I’m here.”
Injury update: Freshman linebacker Garret Dooley was taken off the field in an ambulance during Wednesday’s practice after injuring his right knee during a punt coverage drill.
Dooley, a 6-foot-2, 227-pounder from Rochester, Ill, tallied 132 tackles with 14 1/2 sacks as a high school senior.
Dooley tweeted Wednesday evening that he had dislocated his kneecap. He also tweeted: “Thanks everyone for the concern. I’m ok and ill be good to go in just a few weeks.”