Unexpected journey of Badgers’ Ogunbowale leads to NFL Draft

Dare Ogunbowale's journey has taken him from cornerback to running back, and with the NFL Draft up next he's not done yet.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s funny how life can work sometimes.

The choices we make — or don’t make — can forge the path of our futures. Sometimes the choices of others have the same effect. And often these consequences aren’t seen until later in life.

There might be no better example of this than former Wisconsin Badgers running back Dare Ogunbowale, who is as unlikely a player as any to be selected in this year’s NFL Draft based on his start in college football.

Certainly, Ogunbowale’s collegiate statistics aren’t eye-popping — 1,518 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns along with 60 catches for 507 yards and two TDs in 49 games — but his journey has been nothing short of amazing.

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While he could have played for a school in Division II, Ogunbowale admits he was not someone who was recruited — “I didn’t have stars or anything like that” — but there were two things he knew: He wanted to attend Wisconsin and he loved playing football.

Ogunbowale walked-on to the Badgers in 2012, but he wasn’t a preferred walk-on, meaning he couldn’t join camp until classes started, which is well into Wisconsin’s fall training. But then a member of the 105-man roster had to quit football after suffering too many concussions and suddenly there was an opening.

Ogunbowale was asked to fill it.

He didn’t play in 2012, redshirting, then saw limited action as a cornerback in 2013. Everything changed for Ogunbowale in 2014 due to, of all things, a drill in which he was recruited to play wide receiver because he was so far down on the cornerback depth chart.

Wisconsin ran something called a speed in space drill. A wide receiver and cornerback would be placed in a small area on the field, the receiver would catch a pass such as a bubble screen and then the two players would go one-on-one — the receiver trying to get past the defender while the cornerback would attempt to make an open-field tackle. As it turned out, the Badgers were low on receivers due to injuries — opportunity because of injury is a common theme in Ogunbowale’s journey — and the three cornerbacks on the bottom of the depth chart were pulled over to the offensive side so the drill could be run properly with the right amount of players.

“Every time I went over there the other cornerbacks hated going against me because I’d make them miss,” Ogunbowale said with no hint of hyperbole.

Head coach Gary Andersen took notice of Ogunbowale’s work in the drill. When freshman Taiwan Deal went down with an injury in camp — there it is again — Andersen, remembering that drill, approached Ogunbowale about being Wisconsin’s third running back behind Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, to basically spell them in blowouts.

“Originally I wasn’t sure about it. I just cracked the two-deep in the dime personnel, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move over there,” Ogunbowale recalled. “But I figured there’d be a reason he was coming to me about it and honestly I thought it would be a temporary thing and as soon as Taiwan got back healthy I’d be back to dime and just go about the rest of my career.”

What’s that they say about best-laid plans?

Ogunbowale made his collegiate debut at running back on Sept. 20, 2014 in a 68-17 win over Bowling Green at Camp Randall Stadium. Despite being new to the position — not just with the Badgers; this was the first time he’d played running back since fifth grade (yes, fifth grade) — he rushed for 94 yards on 14 carries.

His days as a cornerback were over, whether he liked it or not. Thomas Brown, Wisconsin’s running back coach at the time, wasn’t going to let the defense have Ogunbowale back. He was now a running back.

Best of the Badgers

Ogunbowale didn’t have any more days like he did against Bowling Green in 2014; he’d have just 20 more carries, including 10 in a 59-24 win at home over Nebraska on Nov. 15 in which he rushed for 62 yards and his first touchdown.

Despite his new position, Ogunbowale didn’t feel fully comfortable in 2014. Yes, he’d stay after practice and work (“but it’s different when you’re not doing it with the offensive line or don’t have linebackers in front of you to make miss or don’t have reads in protection,” said Ogunbowale) and he and Gordon, who was his roommate, would return to their apartment and watch and break down Ogunbowale’s reps from practice — all two of them. After all, Gordon and Clement got the majority of the work, and thus practice reps. Ogunbowale was just the blowout back.

But things were different in 2015. Ogunbowale got increased reps in practice and starred in the spring game, rushing for 89 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns, including a 55-yard burst. And then, once again, an injury opened the door for Ogunbowale and he took full advantage.

Clement would play the opener against Alabama but missed the next seven games and played in just four overall. Ogunbowale would split time with Deal — who would miss a few games himself — but he rushed for over 100 yards the week after the Alabama game, gaining 112 yards on just 16 carries against Miami (Ohio), did it again in a win at Nebraska (18 for 117) and finished the regular season with a flourish, carrying the ball 33 times (his previous high was 19) for 155 yards in a win at Minnesota. Ogunbowale, the one-time walk-on cornerback so far down on the depth chart he was moved over to wide receiver to help out with a drill, led Wisconsin that season with 819 yards rushing.

This past season, Clement was back, meaning Ogunbowale had a different role, and was used mainly on third downs and in the two-minute drill. While his statistics took a hit, this did allow Ogunbowale to show off other facets of his game, like his receiving and blocking abilities.

Ogunbowale showed enough in the past two years that he was an early invitee to the NFL Combine, receiving his email invite shortly after he got back from the Cotton Bowl.

First, though, was an appearance at the East-West Shrine Game. Ogunbowale not only impressed scouts with his skills at practice and in the game (he had a team-high eight carries for 42 yards and also caught two passes), but he also talked with representatives from every NFL team.

NFL Draft Preview

“I didn’t know how it would be. I’m playing against other very good players, obviously, but the way I was playing and keeping up with them and excelling — I was making plays out there with those guys — it was good,” Ogunbowale said. “And the game went well. It was a very good week for me down there and I think I helped myself out a lot.

“People were saying good things about me, but especially scouts. I did well in the interviews showing my football knowledge. That’s obviously always important for a guy in my position, who is more of a late-round type of guy. I guess that’d be the biggest feedback and obviously me running the ball well in the game and making guys miss were also very good for me.”

The combine was next for Ogunbowale and beyond the long days of medical testing, on-field drills and getting drug tested, he said the interviews there were very similar to the ones he had at the Shrine Game.

Teams were, again, impressed with Ogunbowale’s style of play — the way he runs, can make people miss, his hands as well as his ability to protect. And his football IQ.

In fact, one play in particular was brought up by a myriad of teams to Ogunbowale in his interviews both at the Shrine Game and combine, and it had nothing to do with him running, catching or blocking.

On Nov. 21, 2015, Wisconsin hosted Northwestern. With the Badgers trailing 13-7 but deep in Wildcats territory, quarterback Joel Stave was sacked on second-and-goal with roughly 20 seconds remaining. Wisconsin had no timeouts left, however a very clearly woozy Stave tried to get the Badgers to form a huddle. Knowing if Wisconsin huddled to try and call a play the clock would run out, Ogunbowale summoned his teammates to the line and took a snap and spiked the ball from center Michael Deiter.

Ogunbowale said teams would ask him just what was he thinking during that situation and why he did what he ended up doing. Ogunbowale explained the situation — the game would have ended — and he wanted to win the game, so he thought about doing it. Ogunbowale’s biggest fear on that play, however, was that he wouldn’t handle the snap and fumble the ball, thus ending the game. Luckily, he said, Deiter realized who was behind center and didn’t snap it “super hard.”

Ogunbowale had to think of all that in a matter of seconds, and he pulled it off, giving Wisconsin one last attempt to win (even though the Badgers still lost when Bart Houston’s pass to Tanner McEvoy went incomplete).

But that scenario just emphasized to teams the kind of player Ogunbowale is on the field, even when the ball isn’t in his hands.

“That’s one of the things that (teams) bring up a lot is my football IQ and just my in-game awareness and situational awareness,” Ogunbowale said. “They’ve talked to (current Badgers head coach Paul) Chryst, and they know there’s a reason coach Chryst put me in for two-minute situations, just because of my football IQ and they trust me to make the right decisions in different situations.

“As far as being able to relay that (to teams), the best I can do in interviews is being able to draw things up right and be able to explain it. That’s one thing I learned is to not just draw things up but being able to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, why your teammates are doing what they’re doing, things like that. It’s something they liked a lot and I was able to show them I knew what I was doing.”

Another thing Ogunbowale is hearing from teams is where they project he’ll be drafted. Ogunbowale said most teams have him pegged to go in the fifth round, although he knows in the NFL Draft you never know what to expect so he’s keeping his mind open.

“Teams have all been saying there’s a need, so that’s been making me optimistic more than anything,” he said.

Just talking about Ogunbowale being drafted, and as a running back at that, would have been farcical back in 2012. But through opportunity and hard work, not to mention ability, Ogunbowale finds himself facing just that possibility.

“Walking on at Wisconsin, joining in the middle of camp, I was just excited to be on the team, playing football, doing something I loved,” Ogunbowale said. “That first year being a walk-on and being on scout team and being a cornerback, I never could have expected all the things that I’ve had — being voted a captain, being invited to the combine, things like that. Things I never expected to be able to say that I did. I’m blessed, I’ll never forget that, but I’m surprised at the same time.”

What if Ogunbowale hadn’t been placed on the 105-man roster? Or injuries didn’t get him into the speed in space drill and eventually moved to running back? Would we be talking with Ogunbowale the cornerback draft prospect?

“I’d like to say yeah because I’m a hard worker, but we’ve done a great job recruiting cornerbacks so I’m not sure if I would have gotten pushed by the wayside by guys like (Derrick) Tindal and now we got Nick Nelson … we have a bunch of good players. So I’m not sure if it would have worked out for me,” Ogunbowale said, punctuating the end of his comment with a hearty chuckle.

Instead, Ogunbowale will meet with teams in the coming weeks to discuss being a running back (he said he has several meetings upcoming, but is waiting to find out the schedule as teams finish up going to Pro Days) all the while scouts are watching tape of him — and more than just two plays as he and Gordon once did — as a lead back in 2015 and a complementary one in 2016, seeing his full skills on display.

There’s still just over a month to go before the draft (being held April 27-29), which means beyond meeting with teams there isn’t much to do other than staying in shape, relaxing and watching his sister, Arike, play for Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament.

When it comes time for watching the draft, Ogunbowale has had offers for local TV networks to be at his house or to head to some live event, but he’s going to eschew all of that to just be at home.

“No one expected anything like this,” he said. “I’m just going to kind of lay low and whatever happens happens and I’ll just enjoy it with my family.”

It’s all part of the journey. And you might say Ogunbowale’s is just beginning.

Dave Heller is the author of the new book Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow as well as Facing Ted Williams Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns