Two years ago things were different for University of Wisconsin football walk-ons Steve Johnson and Ben Strickland. Both were seniors at Brookfield (Wis.) Central High School then. One was named the Greater Metro Conference Defensive Backfield Player of the Year and Offensive Lineman of the Year according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel while the other rushed for 2,104 yards, had 311 receiving yards, and scored 27 total touchdowns.
Now, the roles are quite different for Johnson and Strickland, who will be third-year sophomores when the Badgers kick off their 2005 season this fall.
Johnson is no longer a part of the linebacker corps or offensive line — he traded all that in to walk on as a long snapper at Wisconsin. The position may not sound so glorious but Johnson has accepted his role. For the past two seasons he backed up Matt Katula. But now that Katula has graduated, Johnson has the upper hand for the No. 1 spot over senior Joel Nellis and redshirt freshman Dave Peck.
“I think Steve’s done a really good job,” special teams coach Brian Murphy said. “He’s proving that he’s worked at it and he deserves that position.”
Since Johnson had been in the No. 2 spot prior to this spring, it has been a long time since he has been in an actual game situation — more than two years to be exact. This inexperience is of no concern to Murphy since the Badgers are prepping him in practice and Johnson is ready to finally play.
“It’s what I’ve put all the time in for, it’s what I spend all the time getting yelled at for,” Johnson joked. “I come here every day, it’s not the most exciting job but it’s all dependent on when you play.”
Strickland too had to make some sacrifices to walk on at Wisconsin. He gave up his touchdown-scoring days to become a walk-on defensive back and has developed into one of the Badgers’ biggest assets on special teams. Last season, Strickland received his first chance to play via the special teams. He worked on the kickoff coverage and punt return teams and contributed with eight tackles and a blocked punt. This season, Strickland will take on the same duties but also has the chance to play on the punt coverage and kickoff return teams, according to Murphy.
“Ben’s one of those guys that’s very conscientious,” Murphy said. “He’s going to keep on getting better, he just needs to do reps and reps and reps. He did a bunch last year and we’re going to have him on a whole bunch of special teams this year so I’d imagine he’s going to improve too.”
Besides special teams work, Strickland could possibly be utilized in the Badgers’ secondary this upcoming fall. He has repeatedly made big plays throughout the spring practices and is currently in competition with redshirt freshmen Antonio Freeman for the No. 5 cornerback spot. Playing time is a goal for Strickland but he is also focused on helping the younger defensive backs learn all they can.
“I’d like to play,” said Strickland, who hopes to become a football coach after graduating from UW. “If it doesn’t happen then I’m not going to be disappointed but I’m going to do everything in my power to try and get out there and help the team out. Every football player dreams about starting and stuff like that but the most important thing to me is as long as I’m helping my team, that’s all that matters.”
“I’ve been very impressed with Ben’s work habits, with the way he is out performing. And you can’t help but notice him on the field,” defensive backs coach Ron Lee said.
Before taking on these roles at Wisconsin, Johnson and Strickland had some decisions to make since both had been recruited by Division III schools. Johnson also got looks from Division II schools North Dakota and North Dakota State but knew that if he wanted to go Division I, long snapping would be his role. He received interest from Nebraska and Iowa but ultimately home, and Wisconsin football, was where his heart was.
“Honestly a lot of it had to do with Ben and Joe coming here,” Johnson said, referring to high school classmate Joe Thomas, the Badgers’ starting left tackle. “We’ve always been really close. It always gives you an outlet. You came in with those two best friends and then you build off of that. If you’ve got problems you can always go to them. It just makes it easier — I can go to them, they’d come to me. It’s close to home, and playing for the Badgers, it’s something that a Wisconsin kid lives to do. If you’re a football star in high school, that’s where you usually want to go. I took the chance here and I’m loving it.”
Johnson’s linebacker days, however, may not be completely over. He commented that defensive coordinator Bret Bielema wants Johnson to start doing some tackling drills with his linebacker corps.
“I told him I’d probably have to teach myself again how to do that, I haven’t done it in so long,” Johnson said regarding Bielema’s offer. “Yeah, I miss playing linebacker but I don’t know if I could play linebacker at this level, I don’t think I’m fast enough.”
For Strickland, his decision came down to playing right away at Division III UW-LaCrosse or opting to go after his dream to be a Badger — even if playing time was scarce.
“Basically I chose Wisconsin because I didn’t want to look back after I was done with college and regret not going for it,” Strickland said. “I’ve just always been somebody that’s told other people to go after their dreams and it’d kind of be hypocritical of me if I didn’t go after mine. I just knew that even though it’s going to take more work, it’s definitely going to be worth it just because I’ll look back and not have any regrets. And I think I would have had that if I didn’t come here.”
Johnson and Strickland may never be stars at Wisconsin or the most remembered players once their time in Madison is up, but that does not matter to them. They are content with the sacrifices they had to make so they could be a part of Wisconsin football.
“I’m very happy with my decision,” Johnson said. “I still haven’t done anything yet though. I’ll be happy once I get on the field and hear my name called.”
“To me, the journey along the way is more important than the end result,” Strickland said. “It could have been fun (to play at LaCrosse) but I think I made the right decision. It does have its ups and downs and you’re always fighting with yourself inside. I’m just happy that I made this decision because in the end I’ll look back and now I don’t have any regrets — I worked as hard as I could to get where I was.”