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Top 10 Badger football players of all time

Isaiah Butler Isaiah Butler BVM Sports Journalist

MADISON, Wis. (BVM) — This season will mark 133 years of Wisconsin Badger football. So many gifted players have put on the cardinal and white; however only several can be touted as the greatest Badgers ever. 

Here are the top 10 Badger football players of all time. 

  1. Jarred Abbrederis, WR, 2010-13
Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis is one of the best walk-ons to join the program.
Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis runs with the ball after a catch in the first quarter of the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. (Credit: Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Jared Abbrederis made an impact with the Wisconsin Badgers as a walk-on from the jump. During his freshman year, he scored three touchdowns and played in 13 total games. From there, his career as a Badger would take off. 

By the time his career ended, he was only second in career receiving yards behind Lee Evans. He also had 12 catches in a 2013 matchup against Penn State, which is the second-most receptions by a Badger in a single game. Abbrederis is also tied for second place in career receiving touchdowns with 23 and tied for first in career receptions with 202.

In 2013, he took home the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the top student-athlete who was a walk-on. He may not be the most well-known walk-on to have a great career in Madison, but his impact helped the Badger’s football program flourish. 

  1. Lee Evans, WR, 2000-03
Lee Evans in action for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Lee Evans is the best WR in Badger history. (Credit: UW Athletics)

It’s not set in stone, but it’s also hard to argue against the notion that Lee Evans is the best wide receiver to grace the gridiron in Madison. 

He has the No. 1 spot in some of the major receiving categories. He is the all-time receiver yards leader (3,468 yards), he has the two best single-season receiving marks and he has the most receiving yards in a game (258) for a Badger. 

Perhaps Lee’s most iconic moment came against a matchup against No. 3 Ohio State.

  1. Russel Wilson, QB, 2011
Russell Wilson avoids the Penn State rush.
Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson scrambles with the football during the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. (Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

In his first game against UNLV, Wilson took Badger nation by storm. He was a graduate transfer looking to succeed at a top program, and he did that at UW. What he went on to accomplish is nothing short of spectacular.

In 2011, he put together the best season by a quarterback in UW history by completing 72.8% of his passes for a programrecord 3,175 yards. He also threw 33 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. 

Along with a fantastic arm, Wilson also got the job done on the ground. He rushed for 338 yards and six touchdowns. Wilson’s dual-threat capabilities led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, but they would fall short against the Oregon Ducks. 

If Wilson had been a Badger for three or four years, he could have gone down as the greatest Badger of alltime.

  1. Jamar Fletcher, DB, 1998-00
Jamar Fletcher was a key defender for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Jamar Fletcher returns a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown. (Credit: David Joles via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

If one was to look back at the late 90s Badger teams, Fletcher is one of the players who would stand out the most.

He was a three-time All-American with 21 interceptions and set a Big Ten record by returning five interceptions for TDs. In 2000, he was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and he won the Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back. 

Although he’s probably most fondly remembered for his clutch interceptions, Fletcher’s confidence is something Badger fans will always respect about his play.

  1. Montee Ball, RB, 2009-12
Montee Ball was one of the best Wisconsin Badger running backs in program history.
Montee Ball scores a touchdown on this run during the 99th Rose Bowl game between the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University. (Credit: Journal Sentinel Photo by Rick Wood/[email protected] via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Lining up behind John Clay and James White, Ball never really got the start a freshman running back would like. That changed a little during his sophomore season when he finished with 996 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. The next two seasons would prove to be extraordinary for Ball.

During the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, he rushed for a combined 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns. When he left Wisconsin, he had what was then the FBS record for career rushing touchdowns with 77. 

Along with other successful running backs, Ball is one of the reasons Wisconsin is considered RBU

  1. Melvin Gordon, RB, 2011-14
Melvin Gordon is another top RB to play for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon during the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. (Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Most people have heard Gordon’s name come through their TV speakers during an NFL broadcast. However, if it weren’t for a game against Nebraska in 2014, Gordon may not have ever graced an NFL field. 

Gordon needed just three quarters and 25 rushing attempts to set an NCAA-record 408 rushing yards. Before Gordon declared for the NFL Draft, he finished the 2014 season with a program record of 2,587 rushing yards. That’s nearly 500 yards more than Ron Dayne’s best season (2,109 yards).

Just like Ball, Gordon is one of the reasons why Wisconsin is viewed as an excellent program for running backs. 

  1. Jim Leonard, DB, 2001-05
Jim Leonhard dives into the end zone in Camp Randall.
Jim Leonhard was one of the best defensive and special team players for the Badgers. (Credit: UW Athletics)

Leonard is probably the greatest Badger walk-on. He was named an All-American three times, finished with 21 interceptions, which tied a program record, and had the Big Ten’s all-time punt return yards record with 1,347 yards. That record has now been bested. 

He went on to have an NFL career, but he has lately found himself gracing the Wisconsin sidelines once again, this time as the defensive coordinator for his alma mater.

  1. Joe Thomas, OT, 2001-05
Joe Thomas is the Wisconsin Badgers best offensive lineman in Wisconsin history.
Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Joe Thomas warms up before the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. (Credit: Photo By Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

For four years, Thomas wore the cardinal and white. His career started as a tight end, but for the next three years, he would move to the tackle position. The next 38 games proved to be some of the best football a Badger athlete would play. He was a first-team All-American in 2005 and 2006. He also won the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s best lineman, as a senior in 2006.

In his first 10 seasons in the NFL, he did not miss a single play until 2017, which was his final campaign. Before 2017, Thomas had played in an NFL record of 10,363 consecutive snaps.

Widely considered one of the best linemen in NFL history, Joe Thomas is one of the greatest Wisconsin Badgers of all-time as well.

  1. Johnathan Taylor, RB, 2017-19
Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor is best RB behind Ron Dayne.
Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor during the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Camp Randall Stadium. (Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

In just three seasons with Wisconsin, Taylor rushed for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns. He would have only needed 952 yards to break the Badger rushing record held by Ron Dayne.

Although he was never invited to New York for a Heisman Trophy ceremony, Taylor was recognized as a first-team All-American in his tenure. He also became the first player to rush for at least 6,000 yards in any three-year span.

  1. Ron Dayne, RB, 1996-00
Wisconsin Badgers running back Ron Dayne is the greatest Badger football player.
Wisconsin Badgers running back Ron Dayne runs with the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. (Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

With 7,825 rushing yards, Dayne is still Wisconsin’s all-time rushing leader. In the 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowls, he was voted the most outstanding player. He also won the Heisman Trophy in 1999.

Dayne seemed to be the spark plug for a struggling Wisconsin rushing offense as the Badgers only rushed for 1,418 yards in 1995, a year before Dayne’s arrival. Every year that Dayne played for the Badgers, he ran for an average of 1,781 rushing yards.

Along with Dayne’s records and accolades, he still remains the most vital player in the history of Wisconsin football.