Polzin: J.J. Watt a fitting finale to search for best Wisconsin football player by jersey number

Editor’s note: BadgerExtra columnist Jim Polzin is picking the best University of Wisconsin football players at each jersey number, updating a project he helped complete in 2008. Today he looks closer at numbers 90 through 99.
A couple of readers have suggested that I do a ranking of the best Wisconsin football players at each position. Maybe someday, but not now.
But it did get me thinking as this all-time roster update wraps up with today’s 10th installment that the best player at a certain position doesn’t necessarily guarantee a spot on this list.
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Take kicker and punter, for example. There was one of each on the original list in 2008 — punter Ken DeBauche at No. 94 and kicker Mike Allen at No. 97 — and both of those players held on to those spots in this update. The specialist total remains at two because nobody new cracked the list this time around.
I don’t think DeBauche is the best punter in program history, but he’s in the conversation. Kevin Stemke was a first-team All-American and the Ray Guy Award winner in 2000, but our panel chose linebacker Dave Crossen at No. 14. Andy Vujnovich wrapped his UW career last season as the program’s all-time leader in punting average (44.3), and I thought he was the best player to wear No. 38 over the past 15 years, but he wasn’t taking Nate Odomes spot.
I’m not sure where I’d rank Allen, who’s sixth all-time in field goals made and seventh in field goal percentage, among the best kickers at UW. Here are some of the players he’s up against from the past 50 years, and who those players were up against at their respective jersey number:
• Matt Davenport (28, Montee Ball)
Rafael Gaglianone (27, John Coatta)
• Wendell Gladem (6, Jack Ikegwuonu)
• Todd Gregoire (5, Brooks Bollinger)
• John Hall (14, Crossen)
• Vince Lamia (2, Jamar Fletcher)
Taylor Mehlhaff (10, Mike Samuel)
• Vitaly Pitetsky (20, James White)
• Rich Thompson (18, Jim Leonhard)
Philip Welch (18, Leonhard)
Then there’s Jim Bakken, who excelled as both a punter and kicker and was a member of UW’s 1959 Big Ten championship team. The Madison native led the Big Ten in punting average in 1960 and 1961 and spent 17 seasons in the NFL, twice earning first-team All-Pro honors as a kicker.
But here’s a common theme among kickers and punters at UW: Our voting panel in 2008 selected Rufus Ferguson over Bakken at No. 21.
Welcome to the club
J.J. Watt is the new No. 99 and, with all due respect to Rick Graf, this may have been the most obvious addition to this list.
Graf, a Madison native, was a four-year starter and played seven seasons in the NFL after being selected in the second round in 1987.
But Watt was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2010 while helping UW win a Big Ten title. He was a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and is a no-doubt first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame choice when he becomes eligible in 2028.
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Stop to consider
Graf’s partner in the “Thunder and Lightning” tandem at UW was Tim Jordan, also a hometown product. Jordan is fourth at UW in career sacks with 27, including six in one game against Northwestern, and played three seasons in the NFL after being selected in the third round in 1987.
He faced some stiff competition at No. 95 from Keeanu Benton, who wrapped his UW career last season.
Benton’s case is strong: 36 career starts, second-team All-Big Ten as a junior and third team as a senior. Plus, the Pittsburgh Steelers made him their second-round pick in April.
This is one worth revisiting down the road. A long NFL career may move Benton ahead of Jordan on my list.
One punter not mentioned above is Brad Nortman, who is fourth all-time in punting average (42.1) and played six seasons in the NFL.
That’s not enough to take No. 98 from Yusef Burgess, who led the 1993 championship team in tackles with 100, including 10 for loss, and forced a team-high seven fumbles.
Burgess had 12 tackles in UW’s 21-16 victory over UCLA in the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Food for thought
Matt Henningsen had a good career at UW, starting 27 games over four seasons and earning third-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior to go with a boatload of academic honors. He was the first UW walk-on to start a season opener as a freshman since at least 1990.
But if our voting panel chose Carlos Fowler over Matt Shaughnessy in 2008, I couldn’t make a case for Henningsen unseating Fowler.
Fowler started 33 games and, like Burgess, was a member of Barry Alvarez’s first recruiting class that helped the Badgers win a Rose Bowl four seasons later. Shaughnessy registered 47 career starts and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors during his sophomore and junior seasons.
Wish I remember how close that voting turned out 15 years ago.
How it looks now
An updated list of the top players to wear each jersey, from 90 through 99, with the best choice from the past 15 years in parentheses.
90 — Don Voss (Drew Meyer)
91 — Don Davey (Konrad Zagzebski)
92 — Carlos Fowler (Matt Henningsen)
93 — Frederick Gage (Louis Nzegwu)
94 — Ken DeBauche (Conor Sheehy)
95 — Tim Jordan (Keeanu Benton)
96 — John Favret (Beau Allen)
97 — Mike Allen (Isaiahh Loudermilk)
98 — Yusef Burgess (Brad Nortman)
99 — J.J. Watt (Watt)

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