The summer of 2016 laid the groundwork for Wisconsin’s 2019 recruiting class.
The father of a then-rising senior who attended one of Wisconsin’s camps that summer texted me to say there was a freak freshman from Michigan turning everyone’s heads during offensive line drills. I immediately assumed it was Devontae Dobbs, who was already a known quantity at that time, but it was not. It turned out to be Logan Brown from East Kentwood, who was already 6-foot-6, but had only played a little bit on the varsity.
Despite the lack of plentiful game film, Wisconsin, a school that is not prone to many early offers, had seen enough. The Badgers became his first offer.
That same summer, the Badgers hosted a talented quarterback who had impressed on the camp circuit, but had spent two years on the junior varsity because he had a Gatorade Player of the Year in front of him at Bishop Miege High School. That quarterback’s name was Graham Mertz.
The following summer, before his junior season, Mertz camped everywhere. He went to Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Indiana and Notre Dame. Only Kansas offered.
He camped at Minnesota, where his father played and mother went to school, twice. No offer from the Gophers following the camp.
One would come in early October after Mertz got off to a fast start as a junior at Blue Valley North, his new high school.
But Wisconsin had offered two weeks prior, and Mertz was already thinking about making a decision.
Guy Boliaux was a starting linebacker on a 1981 Wisconsin Badgers that started their season with a win over No. 1 Michigan.
Boliaux would be drafted by the Chicago Bears the following spring and would play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL as well. After his playing days, Boliaux became a firefighter eventually rising to the ranks of Captain at the Evanston Fire Department.
Football never left his life though as he continued to coach as the defensive coordinator at Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson High School.
Several years ago, Stevenson head coach Josh Hjorth approached Boliaux with a project: help a sophomore-to-be with explosiveness and speed, but very little football experience. With Boilaux’s help, Hjorth believed the young man could be a scholarship football player.
Maema Njongmeta had played soccer, baseball, he wrestled, all before entering high school, but he had never played football. His parents encouraged him to try everything though, so football was the next step. Day one, August of his freshman year, he had to be taught how to snap up a helmet. Hjorth said it was “bumpy” at first. It did not come to the young man right away and Njongmeta is quoted as saying he hated football at that time. But his coaching staff saw the talent. They brought him along at a measured pace. Boliaux accepted the challenge and worked with the young player. He progressed through his sophomore year playing junior varsity and then was pulled up to the varsity as a junior.
Prior to that season, Hjorth and Njongmeta had a conversation. What if all of this potential they saw was realized and colleges came after him? Which school might be the best fit? In terms of academics, athletics, and a defense which fit his skill set, Wisconsin was the school they arrived upon.
Njongmeta recorded 62 tackles (ten for loss), eight sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. Colleges began showing him attention. He received a handful of scholarship offers, but none from Power 5 schools.
Wisconsin wanted to see what he did as a senior.
They invited him to Madison to see games as an unofficial visitor. Linebackers coach Bob Bostad called Hjorth weekly to check in and see how Njongmeta was doing. The answer was, he had turned into the dominant player they all thought he could be. He recorded 134 tackles (24 for loss) and 11 sacks.
By that time, Iowa State had offered, but Njongmeta had an elite academic profile. He was considering walking on at Stanford.
Then, on one of Bostad’s weekly calls to Stevenson High School, he declared that Wisconsin had seen enough and they were ready to offer the kid who, three years earlier, had never put on shoulder pads before, a full scholarship.
He returned to Madison to see the Badgers defeat Rutgers 31-17 and gave the staff his verbal.
At the time, not many in the recruiting world may have been familiar with his name, but the markers for success are all there including the ability to quickly learn the game.
“He is a true role model for Stevenson High School,” Hjorth said. “He is an Eagle Scout, he scored a 34 on his ACT, everything is ‘yes sir, no ma’am.’ He works with our freshman mentoring program and they all look up to him. He has a very bright future and I cannot wait to see him at Camp Randall.”
Kids growing up in Wisconsin almost always cheer for the Badgers. That is the culture in the state.
Julius Davis was partial to the Milwaukee Marauders and the Kenosha Vikings though. Those were the semi-pro teams his father Dornaj Davis played for. There was some college football on in the house, but in those days, it was all about the Marauders and the Vikings.
Dornaj had been in the military and then later returned to the Milwaukee area where he played for those teams. Once Julius entered elementary school, his father signed him up for flag football. That was when dad quickly realized his son was playing far too physically to keep him in flag where very little contact was allowed.
The following fall, every week, he would drive Julius up to Oak Creek, the nearest place where a kid that young (Julius was a June birthday and hence, a young 2nd grader) could play full contact football. By that time, father and son had already been doing ladder drills, and Dornaj again noticed that he might have a talent on his hands.
By the time middle school came around, Julius had continued progressing into an excellent player. He did multiple camps including FBU and earned an MVP award.
Those glimpses of talent from the early days were now much more frequent and Dornaj knew that with high school approaching, they had to think about future. He asked Julius where he might want to play college ball.
“Wisconsin,” he responded with little hesitation.
Dornaj was realistic though. He recounted the great Wisconsin backs. Ron Dayne was from New Jersey. Montee Ball was from Missouri. Anthony Davis was from New Jersey. James White was from Florida. P.J. Hill was from New York. Only Melvin Gordon was from Wisconsin.
“I told him, the Badgers don’t usually go in-state for running backs,” Dornaj said. “So he had to be really talented and out-do the south, out-do the west coast and all those other areas in order to be recognized because they usually get linemen and stuff like that from in-state, but let’s work and go ahead and do as much as we can.”
Davis saw a role on the Menomonee Falls varsity as a sophomore, rushing for nearly 400 yards behind a senior who started at tailback. The second half of the season, he got more and more carries and the Falls coaching staff began to realize what they had. In the off-season, he worked even harder to improve his conditioning, speed and explosiveness, all in preparation to carry the full work load.
Very early in his junior year, Davis took a handoff, and as he was exploding into the second level, encountered a safety diving for his legs. Without breaking stride, he hurdled the would-be tackler, spun in the air, kept his feet and then broke several more tackles on the way to the end zone. That play would get picked up by MaxPreps and go viral.
It made its way to Buffalo, where Wisconsin native Lance Leipold was the head coach. In October of Davis’ junior year, the Bulls became his first offer.
Davis had been to a Wisconsin camp the previous summer, but not much came of it.
That run and the rest of his mid-season highlight tape caught the eyes of the Badgers though. They invited him up for a game against Michigan. He had a chance to connect with Matt Henningsen, a Menomonee Falls graduate who was enjoying success in Madison after walking on there.
Dornaj had to work that day, but Julius spoke to him about it, and only took three days before making his commitment. Over the next several months, more schools would attempt to poach Davis. Notre Dame and USC were among the new offers, but he never wavered.
With Julius’ high school career now complete, his family looks forward to his future in Madison while looking back on all those drives to Oak Creek.
“It will be surreal,” Dornaj said, “We will be joyful to see him have that opportunity and it’s still shocking, to some degree, that he gets to play for the school he wanted to play for. And that’s why he committed so fast. We will be very proud to see him play as a Badger and will have smiles on all our faces.”
Grantsburg pulled Leo Chenal up to the varsity his freshman year. Not long into their first varsity team camp, Pirates head coach Adam Hale looked at his assistant coaches and knew they had something different.
As Chenal prepared to enter his junior year, he was now a put-together 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and posted super testing numbers at that size at the WFCA Combine that spring, including a 4.64 forty-yard dash.
In the fall, Wisconsin invited him up for their home game against Florida Atlantic for what seemed like a normal unofficial visit an in-state junior would take. It was not. The Badgers offered him a scholarship and he accepted, being commit No. 1 in the class.
One month later, Mertz, a four-star prospect, committed.
The Badgers were not known for taking a large number of junior commits, but a rush was about to begin.
That behemoth who had camped with Mertz, Logan Brown, was now rising in the rankings on his way to being a top ten recruit in America. By this point, in-state Michigan had offered, but they offered well after the Badgers had extended the initial offer shortly after camp.
That was his first camp. He came because his strength coach at East Kentwood, Marty Martens, had gone to clinics and pro development events with basketball strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland and football’s Ross Kolodziej. Martens mentioned to them that he had two freaks coming up the pipe in Brown and defensive tackle Mazi Smith. The Badgers urged Martens to bring them to camp.
Both were offered.
Both attended Michigan’s BBQ at the Big House event later that summer, but both came away disappointed as the Wolverines elected to see their sophomore seasons before offering. Smith would take his recruitment into his senior year, but developed a good relationship with the Wolverines as their area recruiter Greg Mattison was also his position coach, and committed to them.
The Wolverines made a run at Brown. He made several visits, but he had a very strong relationship with the Badgers, particularly Joe Rudolph, which began very early. When Wisconsin played at Lambeau Field, the Badgers could not technically host recruits, but Brown drove there on his own to watch the game. He liked Michigan. He liked Ohio State. He liked some of the other places he visited, but at Wisconsin, he felt the relationship was about more than football. And he had developed an early fondness for the campus and school.
So in November of his junior year, he committed to Wisconsin giving them a five-star offensive tackle at a time when former three-star high school quarterback David Edwards was developing into a potential 1st Round draft choice at tackle.
Two days after Brown committed, Julius Davis had finally had a chance to go home and talk to his dad. He committed to Wisconsin.
Less than a month after that, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger offensive lineman Joe Tippmann, who some analysts believed would hold out for a Notre Dame offer, committed to Wisconsin, and the Badgers had jumped out to the early No. 1 spot in the Big Ten Recruiting Rankings.
Two days before National Signing Day in February for the 2018 class, tight end Hayden Rucci committed.
In May, the Badgers quietly received a commitment from Keeanu Benton, an athletic defensive tackle from Janesville (Wis.) Craig who had almost no articles about him on recruiting sites and very little social media presence.
Then the out-of-state run began. June was book-ended by two defensive back commitments from Florida, Semar Melvin and James Williams. In between them, defensive tackle Gio Paez from North Carolina and Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga cornerback Dean Engram, son of former NFL wide receiver Bobby Engram, also joined the class.
Cali-based linebacker Spencer Lytle, who held 43 scholarship offers, committed in August.
From there, the Badger class was moving along nicely, and it allowed them to slow the pace as the fall season began.
Still in need of a tight end, Kansas commit Clay Cundiff’s senior film was catching the eyes of a lot of schools. In the summer, a handful of major programs tried to get him to camp, but he declined and kept his word to Kansas. Wisconsin was a different animal for him though, especially with how the Badgers used tight ends. He took an official visit to Madison in October and committed.
One month later, as the season was beginning to come to a close, Njongmeta received his offer and committed. The day after that, another linebacker who the Badgers evaluated as a senior before offering, Skyler Meyers, also committed quickly after receiving an offer. A stat-sheet filler at Blue Spring (Mo.), Meyers’ offer list never seemed to match his play much like Njongmeta. The Badgers again trusted their evaluation at a position they have had great success at when it comes to developing under-recruited players.
Two days after that, a major piece was added to the class when Columbus (Ohio) St. Francis De Sales defensive tackle Rodas Johnson, who had a good list of major offers, joined the group.
Slot receiver was one position where Wisconsin seemed star-crossed in this class. They had an early commitment from four-star Nolan Groulx out of North Carolina. He de-committed. They filled that spot with another North Carolina native in Marcus Graham, but he de-committed in November.
There was a lot of chatter around East Kentwood that Wisconsin, having already secured Logan Brown, may offer his teammate Stephan Bracey, a speedy track star who was putting together a strong senior season at wide receiver. He was on the cusp of some Power 5 offers – Northwestern and Duke to name two – but to date, only Mid-American Conference schools had pulled the trigger. Northwestern was supposed to come see him, a weather delay changed travel plans and they missed the game.
Bracey committed to Western Michigan in October. The night after, Wisconsin offered him a scholarship. He did not tweet it. He had to think about it. Had Wisconsin offered two days prior, he would be a Badger, but he already gave the Broncos his word. Plus, it was close to home and the Bronco slots were putting up good numbers.
The Broncos held on as best they could. As the days went by though, Wisconsin became an opportunity he could not pass up. The most difficult part of the flip was going to be telling Western Michigan. To the credit of the Bronco staff, they told Bracey they understood, a relief for a young man who was not sure how they would take it.
The class just needed a couple of cherries on top.
Wisconsin offered fullback Quan Easterling who was committed to Akron. It may not have seemed like an exciting offer on the surface, but the film said otherwise. Easterling was violent and explosive and he loved to block. He wanted to wait until his season was over to make any decisions. That season would go all the way into December as his Akron Hoban squad would win the state title. The following weekend, he visited Wisconsin and flipped.
Other than the two slots that flipped, Wisconsin suffered one other de-commitment during the cycle with safety Bryson Shaw.
Five days before the early signing period, Lytle’s teammate Titus Toler, a four-star (on 247Sports) safety committed, filling that spot despite many offers to stay out west.
Then there was Graham Mertz.
After he committed to Wisconsin, Mertz, battling the fact that he had not started as a sophomore, went out and threw for 3,684 yards and 45 touchdowns to only six interceptions. His Blue Valley North team won the state title. So much for the inexperience knock.
Of all the kids who will sign with the Badgers in this class, Mertz is the one the Badgers probably had to guard the most from other schools coming in.
After that junior season, he was offered many scholarships.
“Any time Coach Saban is calling you, and Coach Urban Meyer is in my office, and all these big-time names are calling you, it’s extremely flattering,” Blue Valley North head coach Andy Sims said.
Sims met weekly with Mertz to talk about recruiting. He never sought to influence Mertz, only wanting to make sure that what he communicated to colleges about where his quarterback was at with the process was accurate.
“I don’t want to speak for Graham, but I always got the feeling that Graham felt like Wisconsin was more about Graham, and maybe those other schools were about getting the best quarterback in that class,” Sims said.
“I think he came away with the sense that even if those other offers were not here, Wisconsin would still be interested in me,” Sims said. “When it came to, where do you see yourself, the whole total package, it kept coming back to Wisconsin. If you feel this way, then you have to trust your gut.”