It’s become somewhat of a running joke among University of Wisconsin fans who have watched the Badgers on television every week this season.
When tight end Jake Ferguson makes his first catch, the network’s announcers make sure to remind their audience yet again that the redshirt freshman is the grandson of Barry Alvarez — UW’s legendary athletic director and former coach who orchestrated a dramatic turnaround of the Badgers’ football program throughout the 1990s.
"I love my grandpa,” Ferguson said. "But, I mean, I’m Jake Ferguson. I almost don’t like being called Barry Alvarez’s grandson. Not in the sense that I’m his grandson, but in the sense that I’m me. I’m trying to make a name for myself. I’m trying to start my own legacy."
The title has followed Ferguson throughout his life, perhaps even more so since he became a star for Madison Memorial High and accepted a scholarship to UW. If his first six games as a Badger are any indication, however, Ferguson may break free from it before his time in Madison comes to an end.
He’s already emerging into a matchup nightmare in the passing game, catching 18 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns — all marks that rank second on the team entering Saturday's game against Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium.
Ferguson’s role isn’t a shocking development. He won UW’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year while redshirting in 2017, and multiple coaches and players pointed to practices during Orange Bowl prep as eye-opening for Ferguson’s potential the following year.
"I think at that point, he was just winning his one-on-ones against the starting defense,” said Joe Ferguson, Jake’s brother and a senior safety for the Badgers last season. “Every time we had him in a matchup, it was almost like a game rep towards the end of the year. ... It was just the accumulation week after week of him making someone on the defense look bad, including myself."
Jake took pride in beating his brother in practice, often following it up with the taunting or trash talking you’d expect between competitive siblings. When UW turned to Joe to fill a larger role during the second half of the season, it filled Jake with even more confidence for his own future prospects.
If he could beat his brother in practice, Jake thought, there are other Big Ten defenders he could gain an edge on, too.
The only time the brothers were on the same team prior to last season’s Badgers came in backyard games, when Joe, four years older than Jake, wouldn’t tolerate the shortcomings of his little brother.
“He’d just dig in on me if I dropped a ball and yell at me,” Jake said. "So I always said I’m never dropping a ball. I still don’t like dropping balls because I almost feel like my brother will yell at me."
Joe added: "I’ve always been pushing him to a higher standard just so it’s more fun when I play against him. ... So, selfishly, he got better because I was mean to him."
The brothers, obviously, grew up in a football family, and those backyard games were a constant source of entertainment.
They even had a tackling dummy in the basement rec room.
“Those kids were always tackling and roughhousing,” Alvarez said. "Joe would throw him around and Jake always came back for more."
Room to grow
Jake Ferguson may have been overmatched in his own household, but certainly not in his own age group.
Alvarez still laughs about a conversation he had with his grandson after a youth football game many years ago.
“Kids were afraid of him,” Alvarez said. "I can remember him coming off the field and he said, ‘Grandpa, I made that kid cry when I tackled him,’ and he was smiling. ... He has that mentality. He’s a roughhouse guy. He’s not a cake eater. He’s always been a roughhouse guy."
Most UW fans don’t know Ferguson as such yet. The 6-foot-5, 239-pound tight end immediately became a major factor in the Badgers’ passing game this season, but he’s yet to transform himself into a dominant blocker.
Ferguson spent much of his time at Memorial split out wide, and he’s worked the past year and a half on learning proper technique in a more pro-style offense.
While he’s nowhere near a finished product in that area of the game, Ferguson’s already made noticeable improvements after experiencing some growing pains in practice last year — when he arrived at UW around 210 pounds.
“He was a 205-, 210-pound, 6-5 tight end going against (former UW outside linebackers) Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley,” Joe Ferguson said. "He was getting tossed every day. But what do you expect? The starters in the Big Ten couldn’t even block those guys. ... He learned a lot of lessons and now he’s bigger and stronger and he’s applying it.
“He’s been so good (this season). We heard all fall camp. ‘Oh, he’s got to work on his blocking. He’s got to work on his blocking.’ I turn on the TV on Saturday and all I see is him making good blocks. Clearly, he’s gotten better."
Even now, Alvarez calls Jake a “skinny 240” and said he could add 20 more pounds and still look thin. It’s a big reason why Alvarez said Jake could eventually become the next Gronk, referring to the 6-foot-6, 268-pound New England Patriots tight end who has established himself as the NFL’s best at his position.
Former Memorial coach Adam Smith, who’s coached Jake since he was in fourth grade, said he’s made the same comparison for the past four years.
"He’s going to be the next Gronk,” Smith said. "If he’s able to continue to gain size and strength and continue to have the speed, he has every opportunity to be as special if not better than someone like Rob Gronkowski. I just think it’s very comparable.
"He understands football. He’s grown up with it his entire life, so his football IQ is there. As soon as he’s able to recognize coverages and find weak spots, holes in the coverage and him and a quarterback are on the same page, it could be deadly. He has that potential."
Starting his own legacy
Joe’s experience at UW played out much differently than Jake’s currently is. While the elder brother played 58 games for the Badgers, he didn’t fully enter the limelight until his senior season, when he started five games.
He’s also often referred to as Alvarez’s grandson, but even he’s a bit taken aback at the frequency that title’s stuck to Jake this season.
"It is kind of annoying just sitting here watching him on TV, and that’s the first thing they have to say,” Joe Ferguson said. "They’re not always talking about all his third-down catches or his route-running ability. It’s always something they have to mention. And I get that they have to pretty much because it’s an interesting tidbit, but you only need to tell people once. It’s not that cool where you need to be taking away from all his accomplishments.
"Because he really is playing well. It’s not like he’s just some guy in there who got lucky and he’s also the athletic director’s grandson. He’s earned a lot more praise than what I feel he gets."
If the Badgers play 14 games this season, Jake Ferguson’s on pace for 42 catches and 604 yards. Those 604 yards would mark the third-most for any freshman in program history and more than former UW tight end Troy Fumagalli ever accumulated in a single season. Sixteen of his 18 catches thus far have produced either a first down or touchdown.
At this rate, the Alvarez name may not stick around for much longer.
“Pretty soon I want to be Jake Ferguson’s grandfather, not him being my grandson,” Alvarez said. "I want to flip that. And if he keeps playing well, that’s the way it’ll be."