A perfect switch: Former quarterbacks play key roles for Badgers at new positions

Joe Ferguson, a former high school quarterback, has turned into a crucial part of Wisconsin's defense after recent injuries to D'Cota Dixon. 

Image By: Brandon Moe

As Wisconsin’s first game of the 2017 season wound down and fans began to leave Camp Randall — if they were even still there — redshirt senior safety Joe Ferguson scored his first touchdown as a Badger.

The 99-yard interception return not only brought notoriety to Ferguson, who said his Instagram followers increased in the following days, but showcased the speed he routinely displayed in high school as a dual-threat quarterback.

Now, as Ferguson plays a different role for the Badgers, he recognizes the benefits of his unique path to safety.

“It helps a ton,” Ferguson said of his past experience at quarterback. “I feel like pass coverage is — especially playing post safety and deep in the field — it feels like you’re playing backyard football again. Your eyes are looking at the quarterback, you’re just kinda doing your own thing. And that’s what Coach wants you to do.”

With 52 college appearances at safety, it’s fair to say that Ferguson, who also played defense at Madison Memorial High School, has completed the transition from being a gunslinger to a ballhawk.

In fact, he feels closer to his high school roots than you may think.

“It’s a little different, but in many ways it’s the same,” Ferguson said. “You just have to lead kind of in different ways. And at safety, you kind of are the quarterback of at least the DB’s. You’re getting everybody lined up. You have to understand a defense just as well as a quarterback would understand an offense.”

If having non-quarterbacks with throwing experience is considered an asset for a team, then one could argue that the Badgers are one of the most well-stocked squads in the nation.

Outside of Ferguson, a host of others have past experience at quarterback, as redshirt freshmen Jack Dunn and Garrett Groshek, who has served as a scout team quarterback, previously played the position.

Furthermore, redshirt sophomore offensive lineman David Edwards is another former quarterback, while redshirt junior linebacker T.J Edwards showcased his ball skills with a pick-six to open the game against Maryland.

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He’s not that impressed by his gunslinger roots, though.

“It helps a little bit,” Edwards said after the game. “But not as much as people would think.”

How much the Badgers’ litter of former quarterbacks really use their past skills seems to depend on a case-by-case basis. While T.J. Edwards may not think too much about his ex-position as he’s stopping a running back, Ferguson likely employs his quarterbacking savvy on a more regular basis as he reads the field.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s simpler than that. Dunn can try to put himself in the mind of a quarterback as he goes out for a pass, while Groshek’s throwing abilities mean he can help prepare the defense in practice.

Ferguson had the most illustrious throwing career out of the Badgers’ bunch of former quarterbacks, but the idea of being able to view the game from a different lens is surely useful to all of them.

Ferguson’s knowledge doesn’t only help himself though, as he tries to test redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook in practice, disguising coverages and attempting to goad his teammate into poor decisions.

Hornibrook actually told Ferguson to scale back his disguises last season, as he came to realize his teammate would never end up where he initially started the play.

Ultimately, Ferguson retains his quarterback ability, even if his chances to show off those ball skills are now limited to the rare interception (he now has four on the season) or the winning of a “chess match” in practice.

Maybe it’s hard to fathom Ferguson throwing and running for touchdowns as he hunts down opposing wide receivers and running backs.

But the position is still very much within him, both emotionally and in the way he plays the game.

“I still think of myself as a quarterback at heart,” he said.

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