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A growth spurt, military parents and NFL mentors shaped Badgers’ 2021 recruit Al Ashford III
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A growth spurt, military parents and NFL mentors shaped Badgers’ 2021 recruit Al Ashford III

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Ashford photo

Al Ashford III was a surprise addition to the Badgers' 2021 recruiting class, but he brings confidence and a variety of skills to the cornerback position for UW. 

The shoes started to pile up for Al Ashford III.

It wasn’t a hobby for Ashford, a football and track standout for Cherry Creek High School, which sits in Greenwood, Colo., just a few miles southeast of downtown Denver. The shoes were a necessity.

Ashford, who announced his commitment to the University of Wisconsin football team last week, was growing and growing fast.

Ashford MUG

Ashford

Between his sophomore and junior years, Ashford grew from about 5-foot-7 to 6-foot-1, and went from a size 9 shoe to a size 14.

“It was definitely a learning curve. I was 5-7, and then the next practice or the next camp, I was 5-9. Then I was 5-11, then I was 6-foot,” Ashford said. “It was especially in track that I noticed the growth. … I had continue to alter my blocks, like it was a week-to-week thing.”

The transition from a small and shifty to tall and rangy was a difficult one, but also one he was raised to expect. Ashford’s father, Al II, experienced a similarly fast and stunning growth spurt in his youth.

Most of the challenges Ashford III faced stemming from his growth spurt centered on relearning defensive back techniques. He didn’t have to rely on his speed as heavily, or always be in perfect position, because he could make up for it with newfound length. He also could bait quarterbacks into throws because he knew he could make up the ground between himself and a receiver.

“A lot of bigger corners are real stiff in the hips and can’t really get around. For me, my feet were already there, so it really shocked a lot of people,” Ashford said. “A lot of bigger corners struggle in press-man, if they can’t get their hands on a guy, they can’t really shadow. I learned how to play press-man being 5-8. There have been so many pass break-ups that I thought, ‘My technique was great, but I never would’ve thought I could’ve got (to the ball).’”

Sprouting like he did was a surprise, but it wasn’t nearly as shocking as the way Ashford announced his commitment to the Badgers on Sept. 11.

No one but Ashford knew he had picked UW. Not his parents, not his coaches, not his teammates. He never publicly announced a scholarship offer from the school. UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard learned of Ashford’s commitment from watching a YouTube livestream of the event.

“I knew I would shock some people,” Ashford said. “I went to the store, bought my stuff, got a hat — I had to hide it a bit from my baby siblings.”

Ashford said through conversations with his family, friends and mentors, he knew the decision was his alone to make, and UW was a dream school. So, he thought, why not have fun with it?

His relationship with UW began when outside linebackers coach Bobby April was visiting Cherry Creek to see another recruit, four-star tight end Gunnar Helm, who eventually chose to attend Texas. April — surprised to see the growth spurt Ashford had — spoke with Ashford then, and that led to Ashford connecting with Leonhard.

Even before UW offered a scholarship, Ashford felt a bond with Leonhard, the former Badger walk-on who played 10 years in the NFL. Leonhard broke down film with Ashford and gave him pointers to improve his game.

“We’re both really big football nerds,” Ashford said. “He saw things and was willing to pour them into me without me even committing, and willing to help teach the game. It made me realize that that’s a great guy and somebody that really understands.”

His mother, Cristina, and Al II immediately started looking up flights between Denver and Madison to come watch Ashford in college. He plans to be an early enrollee at UW, despite not having been to campus — the NCAA put schools under an in-person recruiting ban due to COVID-19. That ban was extended to at least Jan. 1, 2021 this week by the NCAA, so Ashford may not be in Madison until he’s enrolled.

Al II and Cristina both served in the military — Al II as a Marine and Cristina in the Army — and they instilled a strong work ethic and self-confidence in their son. That confidence is a trait that Leonhard says is necessary in cornerbacks.

“I wasn’t in positions where I was a highly recruited or highly ranked kid, I wasn’t known. So I had to … not so much promote myself, but show people what my game was,” Ashford said. “I feel like when you put the work into something, there’s no need to have a lack of confidence. So for me, it’s always been like, ‘I know what I can do, I know who I am in my heart.’ So I have no problem speaking on it.”

Relationships with former NFL cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also helped Ashford grow as a player.

He met Amukamara through a youth faith program that Ashford developed and got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization Amukamara has participated in throughout his football career.

Ashford said he’s modeled his man-coverage technique off of Amukamara, who was a star at Nebraska and is currently drawing interest from NFL teams to return for a 10th season in the league. He said that Rodgers-Cromartie, who played 13 years in the NFL, taught him his Cover 2 technique.

“I feel like with my whole craft, I’m like a Madden create-your-own player,” Ashford said.

Ashford said in conversations with Leonhard, they’ve talked about him being a boundary cornerback — one who plays toward the short side of the field. But he won’t be shy about pushing to be on an opponent’s top receiving threat, no matter where he lines up.

“As a defensive back, I feel like they would be doing me a disservice if they didn’t tell me, ‘Hey, we see moving you around,’” Ashford said. “There’s no reason why I couldn’t be able to come down and help with the run game in the box, and also be able to guard a No. 1 in the slot.”


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