MADISON, Wis. — The lineage of walk-on players to contribute to Wisconsin’s football program in meaningful ways over the years runs deep. Joe Panos. Jim Leonhard. Chris Maragos. J.J. Watt. Bradie Ewing. Rick Wagner. Jared Abbrederis. In all, more than 100 letterwinners combined.
These are often the stories told to and players followed by young in-state prospects who receive few, if any, other opportunities to play college football outside state borders. Work hard. Be tough. Follow your heart. And perhaps the big school in Madison will take a chance on you as a non-scholarship player with an opportunity to prove yourself.
Enter Evan Bondoc as the latest walk-on to make a splash.
"Obviously my dream was always to be a Badger football player," Bondoc said. "You see guys ahead of you. Obviously J.J. Watt and other guys in the secondary, Joe Ferguson and (Leo) Musso, those guys that have made the most of their opportunity. That’s what you’ve got to do is keep working hard. You only get one shot at it, so you’ve just got to keep grinding, get better and make the most of your opportunity."
Who is Bondoc? He’s a 6-foot-1, 201-pound redshirt freshman defensive back who happened to lead all Badgers players in tackles during the team’s April 25 spring game. He finished with 12 tackles — no other player had more than nine — and two pass breakups. And while Bondoc earned more reps than other players with less to prove, it was a sign of what he could be capable of at safety in the future.
The fact Bondoc has taken to Wisconsin’s defensive concepts and applied it on the field so soon hasn’t surprised Al Minneart, his high school coach.
"He really kind of seized his opportunity and did a great job," Minneart said. "I knew they were going to be way more vanilla in terms of what they were going to show, which allows kids to play faster. We have the old saying. There’s knowing and there’s doing. Hopefully Evan has shown them that he really knows what he’s doing, and now hopefully he’ll get more opportunities to show he can do it."
Bondoc recorded 74 solo tackles and 101 total tackles with two forced fumbles as a defensive back at nearby Edgewood High School in Madison. He earned first-team all-Badgers South Conference and all-city at defensive back. He also earned an all-conference honorable mention nod for his play at running back.
When it came time to pick a college, Minneart said walking on at Wisconsin was one of Bondoc’s top priorities, in addition to finding a great academic institution.
"One of the things that worked in his favor was there just weren’t as many walk-ons this past year," Minneart said. "There was a de-emphasis on Wisconsin kids. The part that’s going to be more difficult is obviously coach (Paul) Chryst is putting a higher priority on more walk-ons, so he’ll have to withstand that surge of Wisconsin walk-on kids."
Thus far, Bondoc has done just fine in that area. He said he had improved his footwork, which included backpedaling and coming out of breaks quicker in coverage. In high school, he said, most teams didn’t throw a ton, so Bondoc didn’t have the opportunity to hone those areas in games as well as he would’ve liked. He also was a three-sport star and now can focus strictly on football for the first time.
Of course, Bondoc has a long way to go if he wants to become the next key contributor walk-on to the Badgers’ program at safety. Bondoc is behind the four other safeties listed on the team’s roster, which doesn’t even include Tanner McEvoy, who figures to be one of the starters opposite Michael Caputo, the leading returning tackler. Sophomore Lubern Figaro started seven games a year ago, while Musso has appeared in 25 career games and Ferguson has played in 18.
Still, walk-ons must start somewhere. And this spring represented a good start for Bondoc.
"He’s got the right attitude," Minneart said. "There’s always that hope or that potential from that standpoint. Like everything else, they’re always going to bring in more kids that are better. The advantage that he has now is he’s got a jump in terms of the system and then the physical maturity at this point.
"I have complete confidence that he’s going to work as hard as he can to be as productive of a player as he can be. It matters a lot to him. So hopefully he stays healthy. You can always live with the results of a kid like him who will work really, really hard and want to be the best for the team."