MILLBURN, N.J. - In each of his first two seasons since arriving at Millburn Senior High School, Coach Pat Leonardis had been able to send one of his players to a Division 1 college as a preferred walk-on.
It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a big deal for a school more known for their academic excellence, cross country and fencing.
Not that it mattered, but Pickard wasn’t some hidden gem that only the Badgers stumbled upon. A three-star prospect by Scout.com, Pickard was highly coveted and highly recruited by a number of major programs who sent their coaches to the tiny town in Northern New Jersey.
“Pretty much every day I couldn’t go to my mailbox without having five or six pieces of mail,” said Leonardis, who is used to dealing with recruiters after sending 12 kids to Division 1 schools when he was at Montclair in 2011.
“There were days where I would have people cover my classes because we have coach after coach coming here. It was great to see a player from our program being recognized. Jake knows that. He’s honored to be a part of this program as well as honored to go to play at a great Division-1 school like Wisconsin.”
Labeled as the No.77 defensive end in the country by Scout.com, Pickard wasn’t always the 6-6, 230-pound aggressor in the trenches.
When Pickard was a sophomore, he was a lanky 6-5, 175-pound prospect who thought of football solely as a passion. His dad, Andrew, played at Ball State with current Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Pickard’s grandfather was a high school coach, so it’s always been part of his DNA.
But he never thought of football as a profession until he dislocated his left patella tendon and sprained his left ACL and MCL in the second game into his sophomore season.
”Football had always been there that once it was taken away from me, I knew that’s all I wanted to do,” said Pickard. “When we hired a new coaching staff and they saw I had potential, me pushing myself and them pushing me to new limits is what put me in position to play at the next level.”
Following the season, Leonardis and Pickard sat down to formulate a game plan that could be the pinpoint of Pickard’s rise on several college’s recruiting boards.
“He said he wanted to play college football, and I told him you’ve got a long way to go from here,” recalled Leonardis. “I told him he had the potential to do so because he had the height, but he had to put the weight on and he had to put some time in the weight room.”
That’s what Pickard did over the next calendar year. He managed to get just over 200 pounds before the start of his junior year but kept building his body, lifting weights and eating right once he saw that his increased size was allowing him to start dominating opponents.
“You can only tell a player so much on how much potential he has and what he can do in order to get that, but at the end of the day they have to be able to see the results for themselves to truly believe,” said Leonardis. “He saw the success that he had a really buckled down.”
The success came quickly. He got his first offer after his junior football season and got six in the next two months. That pushed him harder to get himself ready for the next level. Wisconsin running back coach Thomas Brown and defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a took notice.
“It really wasn’t too serious; they saw my highlight film and wanted to stay in touch,” Pickard said of the initial Wisconsin interest. “They wanted to see the player I become after the season and see the weight that I put on and how seriously I take this.”
Things quickly escalated a month after Brown met with Pickard at the high school. According to Pickard, Brown said the staff re-evaluated the highlight tape and decided to offer, loving the size, motor and reach they saw, feeling he had the right personality for the program and wanted to get him on campus over the summer.
Leonardis played a big part in Pickard’s recruiting process. In addition to handling the coaches at school, Leonardis drove him to visits at Boston College, Syracuse and Virginia, always listening to Pickard list off all the things he liked about the campus on the way home. He wasn’t able to travel with him out to Wisconsin, but knew that the Badgers were Pickard’s future destination just by listening to him on the phone.
“I could tell by his voice,” said Leonardis. “I told him when you walk on campus you’ll know the campus you’ll want to be at. He said he walked on campus and he loved it. At the end of the day, he has to feel it is the right fit, and he felt it.”
Wanting to play in the Big Ten, the Wisconsin visit hit every major check mark Pickard was looking for in a college: great business school, solid football program, amazing campus and good relationship with the coaching staff.
“After I left, I was sold (on Wisconsin),” said Pickard.
Pickard’s senior year has challenged him in a variety of ways. Young on the defensive line this season compared to last year, Pickard has seen opposing offenses game plan for him, throwing consistent double teams at him or running to the opposite side of the field.
That has forced Leonardis and his staff to find ways to disguise him and use him to the team’s benefit. In Saturday’s 21-6 win over West Side, Pickard was given the ball on the goal line, and registered a two-yard touchdown on his first carry of the season.
He likely won’t be getting many carries in college, as Pickard was recruited to play defensive end in Wisconsin’s 3-4 scheme, a formation similar to what he plays at Millburn. All that leaves for him is to take his official visit to the Badgers for the Nov.29 Minnesota game and start adding some weight to his frame.
“I’m not going to going to an environment that I have never really been in before and put myself in a risky position,” said Pickard. “I am really comfortable with that. Whatever the team needs me is where I am going to be.”
Having confidence in his college of choice and his future position on the field, Pickard’s senior season couldn’t be any more perfect.
“I have a ton of friends who don’t know what college they are going to go to and they are so stressed about it,” said Pickard. “I could not see myself playing football if I was that stressed. We had a couple kids that couldn’t make it to practice because they have to buckle down and write essays and do all these crazy things.
“With Millburn there’s a huge academic pressure going to college. Not going to college is unheard of. It’s a competition of who is going to the best college, so I have friends staying up to 2 a.m. writing college essays. Not only am I done with all that, I chose the perfect place that I love.”