Jack Dunn had a put-up-or-shut-up moment very early in his football career at the University of Wisconsin.
The Madison native and Edgewood graduate was playing on the front line of the scout-team kickoff return unit, an unfamiliar spot for the former quarterback and running back. Dunn, then a walk-on, was assigned to block linebacker Ryan Connelly, who had a running start in Dunn’s direction.
“He just ran right through my face and put me right in the dirt,” Dunn said last week. “I had to figure out how to deal with that pretty quick.”
Dunn’s dealt with plenty in his five years as a UW receiver. At 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, Dunn has learned how to take a hit, get up and do it again. He’s been stepping up for the Badgers the past few weeks, setting career marks in catches and receiving yards at a pivotal time as the wide receiver group was hit by injuries.
Heading into the Duke’s Mayo Bowl — UW (3-3) takes on Wake Forest (4-4) at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina — the Badgers will again ask Dunn to be a crucial piece of the offense.
With the experience he has and what he’s been showing coaches and teammates throughout his time, the Badgers are confident Dunn can continue to shine late in his career.
“In the offseason, the dude works his tail off and you watch it every single day, you see his approach when he comes into the facilities and it’s translated onto the field,” junior tight end Jake Ferguson said of Dunn.
“I think it’s just starting to come up this year and people are really starting to see it. But inside these walls, we see it every day. We see how hard he works. So it really is no surprise to us.”
An expanding role
Finding a role for Dunn has been a gradual process. He didn’t have a perfect-fit position coming out of high school, where he was a second-team All-State all-purpose player for the Crusaders.
UW put him at wide receiver and Dunn said his deficiencies quickly stood out.
“I just had no idea how to get in and out of breaks and I wasn’t great catching the ball,” he said.
He first found a role on special teams as a redshirt freshman, and then made his first career catch the next season as he started finding a groove as a wide receiver.
He played in every game of the 2018 season as a punt returner but was primarily used as a blocker on the outside. Last year, he again returned punts and was mostly used as a blocker on offense, but he scored his first career touchdown on a run against Kent State and hauled in an 18-yard pass against Purdue for his first collegiate receiving touchdown. This season, as part of a quartet of senior receivers, Dunn looked to have a similar blocking role in the second unit. But injuries to fellow seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor left the group thin on experience and created a void Dunn has filled.
Dunn has started the past two games and posted the two best receiving games of his career — five catches for 55 yards at Iowa and seven catches for 76 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota.
Davis and Pryor aren’t expected to play Wednesday, so Dunn again will be asked to be a top receiving threat.
“He’s a guy that loves the game and the guy that puts the work in and enjoys putting the work in,” UW coach Paul Chryst said.
“And I think also a guy that trusts enough in himself that if he does put that work in, that it will pay off. And it’s a great lesson for many, because if you approach it and put the work in, when opportunity does come your way, you will be as prepared as you can be. I think some people, and maybe parts of human nature are (this way), they’re kind of waiting for their opportunity and then they’ll put the work in. And for many, it’s too late then.
“So I think it’s consistent with who he is and so all of a sudden when it does come his way, he’s ready for the opportunities, which he has certainly been, and I think he also then can fall back and trust on all the work that he’s done and enjoy it.”
A tireless worker
Dunn has a reputation around the program.
His coaches and teammates know Dunn will be there at each workout, lifting session or practice with a purpose.
“First thing about Dunn is he’s a great guy, and then his mindset towards the game and just how he approaches every day of practice, and continuing just wanting to get better and grow,” quarterback Graham Mertz said.
‘And I feel like, especially a receiver, when you have that mindset every day you can take another step up. And I think that he’s done a great job of really, truly working every day and communicating with me after a play during practice, and just kind of (asking), ‘What’d you see out of my route? What’d you see out of the break?’”
But Dunn doesn’t limit himself to hearing advice from just his teammates on offense or offensive coaches. Safety Scott Nelson, who lines up against Dunn often, said Dunn will listen to defensive backs regarding how he can adjust his play or his routes to make life difficult for a defender.
Dunn has a kindred spirit in Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former UW walk-on who also was told he was too small to play college football. Leonhard was a three-time All-American safety for the Badgers before playing 10 years in the NFL.
“I think the big thing about Jack is he’s got a huge chip on his shoulder,” Leonhard said. “He’s competitive and he’s going to make you work. If you’re guarding him, you understand that you’re playing a full rep every single time he’s out there.
“As a DB, you line up across from that you know you better not get caught slipping. Because whether it’s the run game, the pass game, he’s going to go make you earn it that rep. It’s great for our offense to have that mentality. Anytime you get guys in the huddle with that mentality, guys feed off of it. They build off of it.”
Leaving a mark
Wednesday’s bowl game could be Dunn’s last game as a player.
The NCAA won’t count this season against a player’s eligibility, so Dunn would be allowed to come back to the team next year. He said he hasn’t made a decision yet and will take time after the season to see how his body feels, but he’s leaning toward returning for another season. If he doesn’t play again, he said he’d be interested in being a graduate assistant — Dunn’s brother, Bobby, is a former UW player who is a GA for the program.
Dunn’s already begun guiding younger players as if he’s a coach. After Davis’ and Pryor’s injuries, the Badgers have relied on Dunn and true freshmen such as Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler at the position. He’s taken them under his wing and shown them some of the finer points of the offense.
“He’s been a professional about it, always knowing his job and assignment,” senior tailback Garrett Groshek said. “And he’s done a lot helping those younger guys out this year. And he’s done in the past, too, helping them understand the offense, whether it’s where to line up in certain formations, different assignments on different concepts, and just always prepping.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said Dunn truly loves the UW program and has shown a commitment to helping those around him succeed.
Dunn, who is a double major in the business school, also helped make an impact on the community at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Dunn and his brother started a fundraising drive to deliver meals to hospice patients and their caregivers.
As he prepares for what could be his final football game, Dunn said his goal is the same as it was on his first day: help the team win.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a lot of winning teams here,” Dunn said.
“And winning a Cotton Bowl, an Orange Bowl, going to the Rose Bowl last year all with kind of different, varying levels of contribution. Obviously this year has been my biggest role that I’ve had and I’m just grateful to be able to have the opportunity to be a part of this team and contribute.
“Regardless of where that contribution comes in — at the end of the day, if I’m catching passes or if I’m just out there blocking, trying to help in the run game, it really doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re winning games. So that’s always been what’s most important to me. Those are the things that I kind of strive to (do), just make a contribution, regardless of what it is. If it helps us win a game, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Who has the edge when the Badgers face Wake Forest?
Who has the edge when the Badgers play Wake Forest in the Duke's Mayo Bowl?
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALLUpdated
The UW offense found a few answers against Minnesota after struggling to move the ball and score for about a month. However, the 20-point effort against the Gophers may not be enough against Wake Forest, whose offense scores 37 points per game.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz (above) took a hit to the head late in the third quarter against Minnesota, putting his status for the bowl game in question, but he’s listed as the team’s starter on the depth chart. If Mertz can’t play, redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf would start; senior Jack Coan announced he was transferring from UW and won’t be available. Mertz struggled with accuracy and timing on routes down the field in UW’s three consecutive losses heading into the Minnesota game, but he connected on two deep passes to move the Badgers inside the Gophers’ 10 before being injured.
Badgers senior receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor won't be back on the field again, and the pair hasn't played together since the Michigan game Nov. 14. Senior Jack Dunn had a career-high seven catches for 76 yards and a touchdown last week.
Freshman running back Jalen Berger has a chance to play if he’s cleared by doctors after contracting COVID-19. With Berger out, senior Garrett Groshek carried the load against Minnesota, producing a career-high 154 rushing yards. Wake Forest ranks 107th in the FBS in passing yards allowed (265.9 per game) and total defense (456.9 yards per game), and is tied for 90th for rushing yards allowed (191.0 per game).
The Demon Deacons’ front seven is led senior linebacker Ja’Cquez Williams, who has 64 total tackles. Senior defensive lineman Carlos Basham Jr. had a team-best eight sacks, but opted out of the bowl game.
EDGE | UW
WHEN THE DEMON DEACONS HAVE THE BALLUpdated
Wake Forest’s offense has been a fast-paced, high-scoring unit under coach Dave Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero.
Despite having three games canceled this season, the Demon Deacons’ offense ranked third in the ACC in scoring (37 points per game) and sixth in the conference in total offense (435.3). Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III were a steady 1-2 punch in the backfield this season, but Walker III opted out late in the year. Beal-Smith leads the team with 650 yards and averages 5.4 yards per carry, but Walker III found the end zone more often. He had 13 touchdowns to Beal-Smith’s four. Each of them had three 100-yard games this season and Walker III had three games in which he scored three rushing touchdowns.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman (above) has been smart with the ball, throwing just one interception in 278 attempts. He’s averaging 238.3 yards per game passing, which ranks sixth in the ACC. Jaquarii Roberson, a redshirt junior, has been Hartman’s top target with 54 catches, 795 yards and five touchdowns. He’s had four games of over 120 yards receiving, including a season-best 12 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns in a shootout loss against North Carolina. Donovan Green, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman, has proven to be a big-play threat, averaging 20 yards per catch.
UW will have to keep up with the fast tempo Wake Forest plays with, but the Badgers have the FBS’ best defense in categories such as total defense (263.5) and third-down conversions allowed (25.4%).
EDGE | UW
The Badgers haven’t made any costly errors in the return game but haven’t gotten much from their punt or kick return units this season.
Dean Engram has taken over punt-return duties with Dunn’s expanded role in the offense and he’s handled each kick his way.
Junior Collin Larsh (above) made a 30-yard field goal in overtime against the Gophers to win the game and has hit 5 of his 7 chances this season.
Wake Forest kicker Nick Sciba is 14 of 17 on field goal tries with a long of 46 yards. Greene is the Demon Deacons’ top kick returner, but his biggest output came against Campbell, an FCS program.
EDGE | PUSH
UW coach Paul Chryst has been stellar in bowl games as a head coach at UW, posting a 4-1 record at UW. Chryst is 3-2 in regular-season games coming off a bye week, which is more akin to the situation the Badgers find themselves in with a truncated bowl prep.
Both of those losses off byes were to ranked teams. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will need to devise schemes to get pressure without leaving UW’s secondary too exposed.
Wake Forest has allowed more than three sacks per game. Clawson, who interviewed for the UW job in 2012 after Bret Bielema left the program, holds a 3-1 record in bowl games.
How the Demon Deacons’ coaches get the team prepared after all the time away from games they’ve had the past month will be crucial.
EDGE | UW
Wake Forest hasn’t played since Dec. 12 and hasn’t won a game since Oct. 31 due to COVID-19 cancellations. That could mean the Demon Deacons are rested and ready for a game, or it could mean they’ll have some rust to shake in the early portion of the game.
Wake Forest won’t get an advantage of playing close to home — Bank of America Stadium is less than 90 minutes from its campus in Winston-Salem — because only a limited number of players’ family members and bowl officials will be in attendance.
Both Wake Forest and UW dealt with COVID-19 interruptions to their seasons and have had times in which they paused team activities to deal with virus outbreaks.
The winner of this matchup secures a winning season, which would be the 19th consecutive winning season for the Badgers.
EDGE | PUSH
STATE JOURNAL PICKUpdated
UW’s offense should be able to get a least one of its key playmakers back, which will help it control the clock and keep Wake Forest’s offense off the field. The Badgers’ defense has avoided major injuries or losses to COVID-19, especially in the front seven, and they’ll win the line-of-scrimmage battle in this one.
Badgers 24, Wake Forest 14
THE NUMBER (UW)
11: Touchdowns allowed by the Badgers, which is the fewest in the FBS among teams that’ve played six or more games
THE NUMBER (WAKE FOREST)
5.8: Yards per play for the Demon Deacons, which would rank fourth in the Big Ten
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Third-down conversions: UW is a combined eight of 30 on third down over its past two games while Wake Forest allows a 43% conversion rate on opponents’ third downs.
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Interceptions: UW hasn’t lost a game in which it has picked off a pass. Wake Forest QBs have only thrown one INT this season.