UW's two highest-ranked recruits – four-star athletes Kraig Appleton and Jordan Kohout – didn't make it to their junior year, and six other players left the program because of injuries, off-the-field incidents or other reasons.
Star rankings don't always relate to team success. Wisconsin had eight two-star players in that class, and three of those are either already playing or will be playing in the NFL next season. Those rankings didn't include the walk-ons, which included little-known "recruits" Ethan Armstrong, Jared Abbrederis and Ethan Hemer.
More importantly, the group had enough successful players and leaders who were key figureheads on a team that graduated having won three Big Ten championships and played in three BCS bowl games.
Rank this class today, and it's safe to say that there were a number of key pieces who helped the Badgers' recent string of success.
Montee Ball, *** 47 RB, Wentzville, MO – Putting his name next to Ron Dayne as one of the great running backs in school history, if not college football, Ball left Wisconsin having scored 83 touchdowns in his career, more than any player in the history of college football. He rushed for 5,140 yards during his four seasons, including more than 1,800 yards in each of his last two seasons.
Ball tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 touchdowns in 2011 (that was more TDs than 42 FBS teams scored that year) and led the NCAA in rushing yards (1,923) and yards from scrimmage (2,229). Ball was Wisconsin's first Heisman finalist since Dayne took home the trophy in 1999. He didn't take home the trophy, but his decision to return for his senior year paid dividends for Wisconsin's offense and for Ball, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.
Ball's final game in his last four seasons has gone like this: Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl and Super Bowl. That's incredible.
Chris Borland, ** 55 MLB, Kettering, OH – Coming to Wisconsin after receiving no other scholarship offers, Borland made the majority of college football coaches kick themselves for not giving him a closer look. The silver lining is that it might not have mattered, as Borland grew up cheering for the Badgers and put on a terrific performance at UW's high school summer camp.
He put on a pretty good performance at UW for five years, as well. The conference's freshman of the year, a three time first-team All-Big Ten selection and an All-American, Borland is just the fifth player in Wisconsin history to record three 100-tackle seasons, and the first since Pete Monty accomplished the feat from 1994-96. Borland's 420 career tackles rank sixth all-time at Wisconsin.
Borland's best season was 2011, his first as a middle linebacker after starting on the outside. He finished with 143 tackles, 19.0 tackles for loss, seven pass deflections, five forced fumbles and two interceptions (all career bests).
Borland's best award season came this past year. He was named the league's Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and became the fifth Wisconsin player to be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, joining Troy Vincent (1991), Tom Burke (1998), Jamar Fletcher (2000) and Erasmus James (2004).
Ryan Groy, *** 37 OG, Middleton, WI - The only senior lineman in UW's starting lineup this season, Groy was a first-team all-conference selection. A versatile offensive lineman who has started at left guard, center and fullback throughout his career, Groy deserves a lot of credit for getting UW's line back on track this year.
Travis Frederick, ** 104 OT, Walworth, WI – Becoming the first true freshman in school history to start a season opener on the offensive line when he lined up at center against Northern Illinois in 2009, Frederick started the final 27 games of his career –25 games at center and two at guard. After graduating with his engineering degree, Frederick skipped his senior season for the NFL, and was selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys.
Jacob Pedersen, ** NR TE, Menominee, MI – A two-time member of the Mackey Award watch list and the 2012 Big Ten tight end of the year, Pedersen leaves Wisconsin having successfully carried on the tradition of dominant tight end play. Playing in 53 games (33 starts) entering the bowl game, Pedersen finished his career with 104 catches for 1,394 yards and 14 touchdowns, including establishing career highs in catches (39) and yards (541) this past season.
Tyler Dippel, ** NR DE, Hartford, WI – Playing at least 11 games and registering at least 11 tackles in all four seasons, Dippel saw a lot of reps and a lot of production in UW's defensive line rotation, but never was a dominant player. His best season was his junior year, when he finished with 20 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Jeff Duckworth, *** 141 WR, Cincinnati, OH – Although a variety of injuries derailed him from the start of his college career, Duckworth won't be remembered for how the number of passes he caught (34, for 443 yards and two touchdowns). He will be remembered for one of the greatest catches in the program's history, a 36-yard reception on fourth down to set up UW's game-winning score against Michigan State in the 2011 Big Ten Championship game. That play cemented him in UW lore.
David Gilbert, *** 92 DE, Oakland Park, FL – A freakish athlete, Gilbert was one of UW's best defensive ends … when he was healthy. He started the first four games of his junior season, registering three tackles, before breaking a metatarsal bone in practice, forcing him to take a medical redshirt.
Another foot problem – rupturing a tendon in his right big toe – popped up in the fourth game of his junior season, but he played through it and didn't miss a game. He led all linemen with 42 total tackles, including 9½ tackles for loss. He also had four sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles, while being named a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
Gilbert announced in the spring that he was giving up football to let his foot rest and recover, but eventually transferred to Miami. He played in 12 games on the defensive line for the Hurricanes, registered 10 tackles and returned a fumble 72 yards for a touchdown on senior day.
Zac Matthias, ***68 OT, Hemlock, MI - One of the rare few under Bielema who came to Wisconsin from the state of Michigan, Matthias played in 44 games with five starts over his career. He became an important piece at the right guard position for UW over the past two seasons, as he started all of his games.
Pat Muldoon, *** 33 DE, Cincinnati, Ohio – After collecting more than 30 scholarship offers during the recruiting process and having a final five of Boston College, Cincinnati, Duke, Virginia and Wisconsin, Muldoon picked the Badgers before Christmas, and contributed every season at UW. He played at least 11 games in all four seasons, and started nine games as a senior. He was most productive in his final season, as his 28 tackles nearly equaled the production from his sophomore and junior seasons combined (29).
Conor O'Neill, *** 29 WLB, Delray Beach, FL – O'Neill likely would have had a bigger career had the UW coaching staff not made the mistake of switching him to safety, a position that he struggled with because he couldn't put on weight. A standout special teams player, O'Neill began to thrive when UW switched to the 3-4 defense. He played in 11 games with eight starts and finished fourth on the team with 39 tackles.
Dezmen Southward, ** NR S, Fort Lauderdale, FL – Setting a school record by playing in 54 games, Southward never missed a game over his four-year career, and started the final 28 games. Southward recorded 152 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, forced four fumbles, broke up 11 passes and made two interceptions.
Southward followed up his 69-tackle, 8-TFL junior season with a respectable 40 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as a senior.
Brian Wozniak, *** 47 TE, Loveland, OH – Despite catching only 15 passes for 127 yards during his career, Wozniak made the most of his production – becoming a red-zone weapon as a senior – and was an outstanding blocker, taking a lot of pressure off of Pedersen. An important part of UW's special teams and the blocking game throughout his career, Wozniak only missed one game during his final three seasons.
Kraig Appleton, **** 19 WR, East Saint Louis, IL – Considered the star piece of Wisconsin's class, Appleton was an elite-level receiver who the Badgers, thanks to a lot of man-hours, were able to wrestle away from Illinois on signing day. There were some character issues with Appleton, but Bielema was willing to look the other way because of his talent.
Although Appleton probably wasn't ready to play as a true freshman, Bielema felt it was important to keep him around the team and out of trouble. Appleton didn't make an impact in his first season, playing in 11 games and catching just three passes for 26 yards, but showed some promise.
Appleton's career at Wisconsin ended when he was suspended from the team in February 2010 for an unknown violation of team rules, along with fellow freshmen Shelby Harris and Nick Hill. Appleton withdrew from school, and two months after the suspension, Bielema announced that Appleton wouldn't return.
In July 2011, Appleton was shot multiple times in his home town, and was hospitalized in stable condition. His whereabouts are unknown.
Jon Budmayr, ***69 QB, Woodstock, IL – A huge recruiting coup for the Badgers (who beat out Arizona, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Notre Dame), Budmayr was a smart, efficient passer who had the potential to thrive in UW's offense. Unfortunately, injuries derailed Budmayr's career. He missed his entire senior high school season with a broken collarbone, missed UW's 2011 season because of elbow problems and was going to miss the 2012 season following hip surgery. Budmayr attempted a comeback before elbow pain forced him to give up football, but he stayed with the team as a graduate assistant.
He played in three games for the Badgers in 2010 as Scott Tolzien's backup, completing 8 of 10 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Casey Dehn, ** NR DE, Owatonna, MN – Following a redshirt freshman season in which he played in 12 games and started one, Dehn played in five of the first six games in 2011 before quitting the team, unhappy with how he was progressing.
After Dehn started having second thoughts following the Rose Bowl, former teammates let the UW staff know that the Minnesota native wanted to return. With Bielema gave him an opportunity, Dehn, a state shot put and discus champion, quit the track team and put all his focus into football. Dehn closed spring listed as the starting right tackle, but didn't return in the fall, reportedly due to academic issues.
A.J. Fenton, *** 14 SLB, Erie, PA – After playing primarily on special teams in his first two seasons, Fenton, a do-everything player in high school, was primed to compete for the team's strong-side linebacker spot. That was before suffering a back injury before the 2012 fall camp that required surgery. When the surgery did not yield its intended results and the issue continued to persist, Fenton decided that he needed to move forward without football.
Shelby Harris, *** 50 DE, Mequon, WI – The first commit in the recruiting class, Harris was a first-team all-state selection, won a state championship his senior year and registered 87 tackles with nine sacks. He never got to show his athleticism at Wisconsin. After redshirting his first year, Harris was suspended and eventually kicked off the team, along with Appleton.
He eventually wound up at Illinois State, where he made 163 tackles over the next three years and had a combined 28.5 tackles in his sophomore and junior years. In the spring before his senior year, however, Harris was dismissed for conduct detrimental to the team.
Jordan Kohout, ****17 DT, Waupun, WI – The top in-state player in the 2009 class, Kohout made an immediate impact on the defensive line rotation, registering 22 tackles in each of his first two seasons, and was expected to be an impact player in 2012. He missed that spring because of migraines, but thought they would clear up by the summer. The problems actually got worse, as the migraines led to two minor strokes, confirmed by an MRI. Citing his long-term health, Kohout ended his career, but stayed on as a graduate assistant with UW.
Josh Peprah, ** NR S, Plano, TX – After bouncing around between safety and linebacker throughout his career, Peprah played in only four games before leaving the team following the 2012 season.
Darious Thomas, ** NR CB, Cedar Hill, TX – After picking Wisconsin over six other offers, Thomas never made it to campus, as he was unable to qualify academically. Bielema referred Thomas to his mentor, Bill Snyder, at Kansas State, where Thomas enrolled. He appeared in nine games as a true freshman, but was reportedly ruled academically ineligible and never played again.