It might seem cliché to say Jake Ferguson was born to play football, but it’s really not that far from the truth.
Any true Wisconsin fan knows that Ferguson, a tight end who accumulated 142 receptions for 1,585 yards with 12 touchdowns for the Badgers from 2018-21, is the grandson of Barry Alvarez, the school’s former head coach and later Athletic Director. One might understatedly say the Alvarez family is a big football family.
But so is Ferguson’s other side. His dad, Brad, played linebacker at Nebraska. “Everybody on that side of the family played football,” Ferguson said.
His older brother, Joe, played safety at Wisconsin. His final year with the Badgers was Jake’s redshirt freshman year.
The two never played together on the field collegiately, but there were always games together, often involving a football, growing up.
It’s not that Jake Ferguson eats, breathes and sleeps football -- but it’s pretty close. He’s not on social media much, but you’ll have to scroll pretty far down on his timeline to find something non-football related other than a certain television show (“I was pretty intense when ‘Game of Thrones’ was going on,” he admitted, while saying the character on that show which best explained him as a football player was Tormund Giantsbane).
When asked what he’d want pass along to NFL teams as his strengths, Ferguson barely took a breath before answering. It wasn’t anything about his game, though, but his devotion to it.
“Just kind of like my love for the game and I guess the whole scene around me being a guy who was being born into this game,” Ferguson said. “I honestly expect to be around it when I die.”
Of course, being passionate about football will only take you so far. Ferguson has the skills and credentials, too.
He could have left Wisconsin after the 2020 season and been drafted. But he wasn’t happy with that season – not from a personal standpoint but because Wisconsin’s season stopped and started repeatedly and there were no fans in the stands due to the COVID pandemic.
“I didn’t want to go out not having a full ‘Jump Around’ in my last home game,” Ferguson said, noting the traditional song played between the third and fourth quarters at Camp Randall Stadium.
Still, people thought he’d leave. There was no chance. After Wisconsin’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest, teammates came up to him wondering if they should be saying goodbye.
“I was like, hell no, I’m staying. I’ll see you in workouts in a week,” Ferguson recalled telling those who inquired.
Coming back allowed him to work on another strength of his game – his hands. He extended his streak of catching a pass to 47 games – i.e. every game he played at Wisconsin – and had, according to Sports Info Solutions, only one drop in 2021.
That streak of catching passes is even more impressive knowing that he played with a splint or cast on his hand in both 2019 and ’20 and had to have double thumb surgery after both seasons.
Having good hands was something he worked on, unwittingly at times, all his life.
He and Joe would play catch often as kids, including a game called divers in which, as the name reflects, they’d have to dive and make a great catch.
“I probably did that every single day with him when we got home from school,” Jake recounted. “There was always a ball involved no matter what we were playing.”
Having those thumb injuries also, ironically, helped. Ferguson was forced to learn to catch the ball differently – and it made him all the better of a receiver.
“Just learning how to overcome (the injuries) and get on the J.U.G.S. machine after practice for a little bit. Sitting there with a quarterback and having him throw to me in my entire catch radius and just figuring it out -- if I can’t catch it this way so I’m going to have to figure it out if the ball is here,” Ferguson explained. “Just figuring out how to overcome that cast and then when I’m done getting in that rice bucket and making sure my hands are stronger so I don’t have to worry about stuff like that ever happening again. I think that focus on my hands has just paid off a ton in the catching sense.”
After another solid year – he had a career-high (and team-high) 46 catches and was named first-team All-Big Ten in 2021 -- there was no question in his mind again as to what he was going to do: It was time to leave.
NFL teams clearly thought enough of Ferguson as well as he was invited to both the combine and Senior Bowl. But there’s plenty of competition at tight end in this year’s draft – he was one of 18 at the combine, for example.
“This (tight end) draft class is huge. I think something that sets me aside, like I said, is my love for the game but also, I mean, I played five years in a pro-style offense,” Ferguson said. “I know what it’s like. I’m going to block in the trenches, I’m going to get nasty in the trenches but if you need me on third down, second down to get a first down, I’m going to do it.
“My experience in this type of offense and playing Big Ten defenses and playing those big guys at the d-end position I think sets me up really well at the next level. While I think there’s still a ton of work to do, whether it be my body, my strength or my knowledge, I think that I’m really close and definitely can make an impact this next year.”
Ferguson stood out at the Senior Bowl – an atmosphere he preferred to the combine because it felt like a football week, with practices and a game to play – with strong practices and a touchdown in the game itself.
It was at the Senior Bowl and combine that Ferguson realized something for the first time: Wisconsin had prepared him well for life in the NFL. Not just in the actual playing of the game, but everything that goes into football. He’d be asked to draw up plays on a whiteboard. Power formation was a common request.
“I’m like OK, that’s the easiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Ferguson said. “We run it every single day. I can tell you a game we ran power five times in a row at Wisconsin against different fronts.
“You get into those meetings and this is literally what I was learning freshman and sophomore year. Wisconsin just set me up so well not only to learn this kind of stuff, but also repeat it and continuously write it down in front of coaches and almost teach it back in that combine setting and that Senior Bowl setting.”
There was a lot of talking done at the Senior Bowl and combine for Ferguson. He said he had discussions with every team, either with a scout and/or coach. Since then, he’s had a few workouts and again talked to every team via Zoom meetings.
One thing that didn’t thrill him at the combine was his 40 time and vertical. He knew he could do better. The competitor in him also knew he couldn’t stand around at Wisconsin’s Pro Day and just watch everyone else do drills.
Thus, Ferguson ran the 40 again – and upped his time from 4.81 to 4.71. He also improved his vertical from 31 1/2 inches to 34 1/2, which would have tied him for the top jump among tight ends at the combine.
“You might look at him and say, oh, he’s not that athletic,” said cornerback Faion Hicks, who entered Wisconsin the same year at Ferguson, “but for a guy his size he moves pretty smooth. He runs routes really well and he has really, really good hands. Going against him for shoot, four or five years, it was awesome to go against him. He’s a special player. I think he’s going to be a really good tight end at the next level just him being able to block and be sneaky good in the pass game.”
There’s no certainty that Ferguson will be drafted, but it’s highly likely as per draft mavens, most of whom see Ferguson as a Day 3 pick, although in varying rounds. He isn’t concerned when he’ll be drafted or even what people might predict. He knows anything can happen.
Come draft day, he’ll watch, try and relax and be around his football-loving family. Then it will be time for more work, more learning, more football. Just the way he wants it.
“My dream has to be able to make a living playing this children’s game that I’ve loved for so long, and I want to play it for as long as I can,” Ferguson said. “And when I’m done, I want to be surrounded by it. I think it’s easy for me to do whatever it takes to be able to play this game and win games because I love it so much. It’s easy for me to love it.”