Paul Chryst had a winning lottery ticket in his pocket for a time this spring and summer, but he waited to cash it in.
It wasn’t a scratch-off or the Powerball, rather it was a recruiting win in the form of Chez Mellusi, a running back who was in the NCAA transfer portal after two seasons at Clemson. Mellusi had a number of suitors, and University of Wisconsin running backs coach Gary Brown was one of the first to contact the former four-star prospect after he entered the portal.
After many conversations, Chryst knew Mellusi was ready to commit to joining UW, but he wouldn’t let him until Mellusi had come to Madison for a visit.
“Coach Chryst wanted to make sure that this was the place for me,” Mellusi said Wednesday after the Badgers’ sixth practice of fall training camp.
“I knew in my heart that I wanted to be here just from a football aspect. He wanted me to get here, see what Wisconsin is like because I hadn’t been here. So it was one of those things where he wanted me to actually be here, get a feel for it. Once I was here, I really liked it a lot.”
Chryst, who often speaks about valuing fit almost above all else in recruiting, had a good feeling that Mellusi would dovetail well into the UW running back room.
The Badgers needed someone with experience to complement a young group featuring a handful of players without college carries to their names. While Mellusi’s resume with the Tigers wasn’t extensive, he played in 21 games as a backup and tallied 427 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 71 carries and five catches for 38 yards and a score. But being a player with the experience and personality that the Badgers wanted to add wasn’t enough in Chryst’s mind.
“I think it was frustrating for him, but we wanted to make sure he got up and visited and was around our guys,” Chryst said. “It’s a two-way street. Like it’s just not what we think about him, it’s what he thinks about us and does he feel comfortable.”
Mellusi visited UW on June 1, the day the NCAA’s ban on in-person recruiting lifted, and Mellusi committed in a few short hours.
Mellusi joined the Badgers’ summer conditioning program soon after committing and quickly was establishing trust with his new teammates. That trust and Mellusi’s ability has been on display early in UW’s training camp.
He’s splitting first-team tailback reps with redshirt freshman Jalen Berger and showing vision behind the line and good bursts of speed once he decides which hole to attack.
“He’s really shown me that he loves to run the ball hard,” senior offensive lineman Josh Seltzner said. “We haven’t been tackling much, but he always finishes through and almost lays the shoulder a little bit, lets linebackers know what’s up. So I really appreciate that out of him.”
UW’s returning stable of offensive linemen, including Seltzner, was a factor in Mellusi’s decision to come to UW. So too was his previous relationship with Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz — the pair connected playing for the East team at the 2019 All-American Bowl.
Carrying on UW’s tradition of running backs also played a role. Mellusi will wear No. 6 instead of 27, his number in high school and at Clemson. Along with wanting a fresh start at his new school, No. 6 once belonged to Corey Clement, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards for the Badgers before starting an NFL career.
“Another great running back had had that already, so why not keep it going?” Mellusi said with a smile.
Mellusi said a few friends questioned why he left Clemson, a national power that has reached the College Football Playoff each of the past six seasons and won two championships in that span. A position coach change and a shift in offensive philosophy made him feel like his best chance to contribute was elsewhere, he said.
But the experiences he had in his career, including playing in last season’s semifinal, are valuable to the Badgers.
“I think he brings a work ethic and a mentality and a passion to get to the mountaintop,” Brown said. “Our guys in our room have really, really enjoyed him being in our room. I hope he continues to do those things he’s doing to help us get there.”
Mellusi has an opportunity to be a top-of-the-depth-chart back at UW, something that eluded him while he worked behind Travis Etienne at Clemson. That chance is motivating him on the field and in meetings, Chryst said.
Patience served Mellusi well in his process of landing with the Badgers. He now wants that time he’s been waiting to pay off.
“I feel great. This team really made me feel at home,” he said. “It was a smooth transition.
“We’ve got a great room. We’ve got a great group of young guys. I’m fairly young, I’m still 19, but I’m kind of a veteran. I feel like it’s my duty to keep going and show these guys what it’s like to be part of something special. I kind of was part of something special, and I want to keep it going.”
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.