Top 10 Best Wisconsin College Football Players of All Time
The Wisconsin Badgers have an illustrious football history consisting of a bowl game record of 19-15, along with one national championship in 1942. Many great players have gone to Wisconsin over the years, but only a handful can be listed as the best football players in school history.
Who Are the Best University of Wisconsin Football Players of All Time?
- Ron Dayne
- Jonathan Taylor
- Jim Leonhard
- Melvin Gordon
- Joe Thomas
- Jamar Fletcher
- Montee Ball
- Lee Evans
- Russell Wilson
- J.J. Watt
1. Ron Dayne
- 1999 Heisman Trophy winner
- Wisconsin’s all-time rushing leader
- Two-time 2,000 yard rusher
Coming out of Overbrook high school in South Jersey, Dayne did not have a lot of offers to play running back. Listed at 270 lbs coming out of high school, Dayne was seen as a fullback by most collegiate scouts. However, one coach promised Dayne the role of running back, and that was Coach Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin University. In his first season as a Badger, Dayne rushed for over 2,000 yards in 13 games.
Dayne’s best season came in 1999, where he rushed for 2,034 yards. Dayne won the Heisman Trophy that year, as well as winning the Doak Walker Award, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award, and the AP Player of the Year Award. Dayne is the all-time rushing leader in program history with 7,125 rushing yards. Dayne has 951 more rushing yards than Jonathan Taylor (6,174), who is second in program history.
2. Jonathan Taylor
- 6,174 rushing yards in three seasons
- Two-time First Team All-American
- Two-time Doak Walker Award winner
The Salem, New Jersey product came out of high school with a three-star rating. With offers from Boston College, Rutgers, and Virginia Tech, Taylor committed to Wisconsin. In his first season as a Badger, Taylor finished with 1,977 rushing yards on 299 attempts. He was rewarded with a Second Team All-American nod. The following season was even better, as Taylor netted 2,194 rushing yards on 307 attempts.
Taylor’s efforts earned him his first Doak Walker Award for best collegiate running back as well as a First Team All-American spot. The following season Taylor had his second 2,000 rushing yard season. Taylor had 2,003 rushing yards to go with the 21 touchdowns he scored that season. Taylor would win his second Doak Walker Award and gain his second First Team All-American spot. Taylor would forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Taylor is 951 yards behind Ron Dayne for second in Wisconsin history for all-time rushing yards.
3. Jim Leonhard
- 21 career interceptions
- 1,347 return yards
- Three-time AP First Team All-American
Seen as the best walk-on in Wisconsin history, Jim Leonhard was born and raised in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Leonhard started his first collegiate game in his sophomore year and never looked back. In his first season, Leonhard led the nation in interceptions with 11, earning him his first AP First Team All-American spot.
Leonhard would follow up his stellar sophomore season by leading the Big Ten in interceptions with seven in his junior year. Leonhard would receive his second All-American slot that season. In Leonhard’s final season with the Badgers, he recorded only three interceptions but still managed to earn his third consecutive First-Team All-American honor. Leonhard was not only a great defensive back, he was also a great return man. In his collegiate career, Leonhard netted 1,347 return yards, which is a school record. Leonhard recently was the interim head coach for the Badgers as well. Compiling a record of 4-3 while winning the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Oklahoma State 24-17.
4. Melvin Gordon
- Second in 2014 Heisman Voting
- 29 Rushing Touchdowns in 2014
- 408 rushing yards against Nebraska
The Kenosha Wisconsin product was only a three-star prospect coming out of Bradford high school. Gordon only courted six Division 1 offers from Tennessee, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The hometown product signed for the Badgers in 2011. Gordon sat behind Montee Ball for his first two seasons and then burst onto the scene in 2013 with 1,609 rushing yards. Gordon’s senior season was his best. In 14 games, Gordon rushed for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns.
In a matchup against Nebraska, Gordon ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns. His performance set the new record for rushing yards in a single game, which was subsequently broken the next week by Samaje Perine of Oklahoma State. Gordon would go on to finish second in the Heisman voting that season and take home the Doak Walker Award. Gordon also took home Consensus All-America honors as well as being named Big-Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
5. Joe Thomas
- 2006 Outland Trophy winner
- Two-time AP First Team All-American
- 2006 consensus All-American
Considered one of the best offensive tackles of all time, Joe Thomas was destined to be a Badger. Growing up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, Thomas attended Brookfield high school, where his football career blossomed. Thomas was highly recruited for a number of positions. Wisconsin initially offered Thomas a scholarship to play tight end. Purdue and Iowa offered for him to play Defensive Line. USC was the only school to offer Thomas a role as an Offensive Lineman. Thomas had also received offers from Northwestern and Colorado.
Thomas signed with Wisconsin after they had offered him a role as an Offensive Tackle. Thomas’s collegiate career spanned from 2003-2006. In his time as a Badger, Thomas gained two AP First Team All-American honors as well as a Consensus All-American honor in his senior year. Thomas’s senior season also saw him win the Outland Trophy, which is given to the best interior lineman in the nation.
6. Jamar Fletcher
- 21 career interceptions
- Two-time AP First Team All-American
- Big-Ten All-Decade team (1990-2000)
One of the most dominant defensive backs of the late 1990s, Fletcher played for three seasons for the Badgers. In his maiden season with the Badgers, Fletcher burst onto the scene, recording seven interceptions. Those seven interceptions were enough to lead the nation that season. Fletcher also led the nation in interceptions returned for touchdowns with three in 1998. Fletcher followed up his outstanding freshman year with seven more interceptions in his sophomore year. Fletcher also took two of those interceptions to the end zone.
Fletcher’s 1999 season was good enough to notch him a First-Team All-American honor. Fletcher would prove to be consistent the following season, as he would record his third straight season with seven interceptions. Fletcher’s 2000 season would see him gaining his second straight First Team All-American honor. Fletcher’s three seasons at Camp Randall would see him set the Big Ten record for most career interceptions. Fletcher’s 21 career interceptions also see him ranked fifth all-time in interceptions in NCAA history.
7. Montee Ball
- 33 rushing touchdowns in 2011
- 2012 Doak Walker Award winner
- Two-time AP First Team All-American
Coming out of Wentzville high school in Missouri, Montee Ball had only five offers from Power 5 schools. Ball committed to Wisconsin in 2009 and did not receive a lot of playing time his freshman year. Ball burst onto the scene in his sophomore season, recording 996 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. 2010 was only a glimpse of what he would do over the next two seasons.
In 2011 Ball ran for 1,923 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns. Ball would also receive six more touchdowns, bringing his total on the season to 39 in just 14 games. 2011 would see Ball get nominated for his first All-American honor. The 2012 season would see Ball run for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns. These stats were good enough for Ball to win the Doak Walker Award. Ball would gain his second First Team All-American honor. Ball would finish his career with 77 rushing touchdowns which was then an FBS record.
8. Lee Evans
- All-time school leader in receiving yards
- Two-time First Team All-Big Ten
- 2001 First Team All-American
Arguably the best wide receiver to grace the gridiron at Wisconsin, Lee Evans committed in 1999. Evans played at Camp Randall for three seasons. Evans did not receive a lot of playing time over his first two seasons. Evans hit his stride in 2001 when he was promoted to wide receiver number one on the depth chart. Evans’ 2001 season saw him record 1,545 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns.
Evans’ junior season saw him notch his only First-Team All-American nod. Evans would medically redshirt his senior year due to having two knee surgeries that off-season. Evans would miss the 2002 season but he would return in 2003 and record 1,213 receiving yards and catch 13 touchdowns. This would bring Evans’ career total in receiving yards to 3,468, setting a program record that still stands today. The 2003 season would see Evans notch his second First Team All-Big Ten honor.
9. Russell Wilson
- 2011 Big Ten champion
- 2011 First Team All-Big Ten
- 33 passing touchdowns in 2011
Although he only played one season for the Badgers, Russell Wilson is widely regarded as the best Wisconsin quarterback of all time. Wilson spent his first three seasons playing for N.C. State before transferring to Wisconsin. Wilson compiled 8,545 passing yards in his career at N.C. State. In Wilson’s only season with the Badgers, he threw for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns. Wilson only threw a total of four interceptions that season as well.
Wilson finished ninth in the 2011 Heisman voting and was named to the First Team All-Big Ten team. Wilson led the Badgers to the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers would beat Michigan State 42-39 to secure the Big Ten Championship. The Badgers would then go on to face the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin would lose 45-38, but Wilson would go on to throw for 296 passing yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
10. J.J. Watt
- 2010 Ronnie Lott Trophy winner
- 2010 AP Second Team All-American
- 2010 Wisconsin Team MVP
Starting his collegiate career as a tight end for Central Michigan, nobody knew what to expect from J.J. Watt at Wisconsin. Watt transferred to Wisconsin in 2009 and had an immediate impact on the defense. In his first season for the Badgers, Watt recorded 15.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
Watt’s 2010 season was even better as he recorded 21.0 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. Watt also recorded his only collegiate interception in 2010 as well. Watt’s 2010 season would be rewarded by Watt receiving the Ronnie Lott Trophy. Watt was also named to the AP Second All-American Team and was named Wisconsin’s team MVP. Watt would forgo his final season with the Badgers to enter the 2011 NFL draft. Watt wrapped up his Badger career with 11.5 sacks, 36.5 tackles for losses, and one interception in only two seasons.
- Alan Ameche
- Al Toon
- Chris Borland
- Jared Abbrederis
- Joe Schobert
- Lance Kendricks
- T.J. Watt
- Travis Beckum
- Travis Frederick
Who is the best Wisconsin quarterback of all time?
Despite playing only one season for the Badgers, Russell Wilson is widely regarded as the best quarterback in Wisconsin history. In Wilson’s only season with the Badgers, he compiled 3,175 passing yards, 33 passing touchdown passes, and only four interceptions. Wilson led a star-studded 2011 Wisconsin team to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl appearance. Wilson finished 9th in the Heisman voting that season and would go on to be drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
Who is the best Wisconsin wide receiver of all time?
Lee Evans is widely regarded as Wisconsin’s best wide receiver of all time. Evans did not get a lot of playing time in his first two seasons with the Badgers. However, his junior and senior years saw him become one of the most feared receivers in the nation. Evans’s junior year was his best, as he racked up 1,545 receiving yards and nine touchdown receptions. Evans finished his collegiate career with 3,468 receiving yards which is a program record.
Who is the best Wisconsin running back of all time?
The best running back in Wisconsin history is Ron Dayne. In his four seasons at Camp Randall, Dayne ran for 7,125 yards and 71 touchdowns. Dayne also recorded two 2,000 rushing-yard seasons in his freshman and senior year. Wisconsin is known as “Running Back U,” with many great running backs coming through the program. Jonathan Taylor, Montee Ball, and Melvin Gordon are some of the best to come out of Wisconsin.