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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.”


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This article originally ran on madison.com.

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