Andrew Van Ginkel felt every reason to be nervous when he first arrived at the University of Wisconsin in January of 2017.
The Iowa Western Community College transfer had thrust himself into a group of bigger, stronger players, many of whom could, for once, match up with Van Ginkel’s athleticism. As if that transition wasn’t challenging enough in its own right, he also faced the task of mastering the Badgers’ outside linebacker position after spending the early years of his college career with his hand in the dirt at defensive end.
While the quiet, long-haired Iowa native sat with those worries heading into his first practices with UW that spring, it didn’t take the Badgers’ coaching staff long to discover what they had in Van Ginkel.
“I think he was more nervous than we were,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "We saw the talent. We saw the ability. He was concerned how he was going to pick it up. He was concerned on how he was going to play in space. It only took us a couple days to realize he was going to be a really good player. He had the potential to be a really good player in this defense, just with his athletic ability."
Nerves didn’t equal a lack of confidence for Van Ginkel, though. He’s the one that bet on himself by leaving FCS program South Dakota in search of a chance at the highest level of college football — an opportunity he earned with the Badgers and nearly a dozen other Power Five programs who offered him out of Iowa Western.
Van Ginkel served as UW’s third outside linebacker last season and enjoyed a mini breakout over the final two games — making crucial plays in both the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State and the Badgers’ Orange Bowl win over Miami.
While an early-season ankle injury hampered him for a number of weeks, Van Ginkel’s played in every game this season and taken on the role of UW’s top player at the position. He’s beginning to feel 100 percent and enters Saturday’s game at Purdue coming off what Leonhard called his best game of the season against Penn State, where he recorded a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 for loss, and half a sack.
"We look for him every game to make a play because we need him to,” UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “I think Gink’s always been a guy since he came in here who’s had huge playmaking ability. … You can see him just get better and better. It’s been a very cool thing to watch."
Leap of faith
Coming out of Rock Valley High, not a single FBS program noticed the potential Leonhard saw in Van Ginkel during the early days of spring ball last year.
One reason for that — and perhaps the sole reason — came from Van Ginkel’s decision to not attend recruiting camps, particularly in the months leading up to his senior season. Rather than spend his summer traveling, Van Ginkel helped his family out by taking a job in construction.
"He’d work construction all day, do a lot of cement pouring, and then he’d go to the weight room for two hours until about seven, eight o’clock at night,” Rock Valley High coach Cory Brandt said. "That was his senior year summer. So he didn’t get a lot of recognition. If you don’t go to a lot of camps, they don’t see you. You’re not on their radar."
Van Ginkel put together a fantastic senior season at linebacker and quarterback, with Brandt crediting him for leading Rock Valley to the playoffs by “making play after play."
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Brandt sent that senior tape to a number of Power Five coaches, but it wasn’t enough. The in-state Hawkeyes took a slight interest but ultimately passed.
"I just had my tape, and coaches might look at it, might not,” Van Ginkel said. "So I think the biggest thing is I should have went to more summer camps and showed my athletic ability and tried to get my name out there. I think that was the biggest thing. … I think I would have ran well and tested well."
Van Ginkel received no FBS offers and accepted his only FCS opportunity — a partial scholarship to South Dakota.
When he finished third in voting for the STATS FCS National Freshman of the Year as a redshirt freshman, ranking highest among defensive players, it served as a glaring sign that Van Ginkel should take another stab at the top level.
He made the leap to Iowa Western, and within just a couple months started receiving attention from the Power Five programs who ignored him just a couple years earlier.
“I think it’s just something where he had a goal and a dream where he wanted to play at the next level,” said Karen Van Ginkel, Andrew’s mother. “He’s pretty quiet and laid back, but he’s got determination. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to work hard to get there."
Van Ginkel recorded 39 tackles, 10 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks in a reserve role last season and also intercepted a pass for a touchdown in the Big Ten Championship game against the Buckeyes.
He suffered his ankle injury early on during UW’s loss to BYU in Week 3 of this season. While he never actually missed a game, Van Ginkel said he didn’t begin to feel glimpses of being his normal self until the Badgers’ win over Illinois on Oct. 20.
"That injury’s in a lot of cases a four- to six-week injury,” Leonhard said. “It shows his toughness to be able to play through. We tried to be smart and limit snaps and put him in positions he can have success, but it’s just a credit to him."
Van Ginkel recorded zero sacks and just one tackle for loss during the five-week stretch between the BYU and Michigan games. For the season, he’s now at 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. He also burst around the edge to block a field goal against Rutgers two weeks ago.
Now healthy and coming off an impressive showing at Penn State, the senior has three more opportunities to show what he can do before taking a shot at the NFL.
"I actually had higher expectations (for this season),” Van Ginkel said. "Getting hurt, I really felt like I was starting to get into my grove in the BYU game, getting into who I was and the football player I wanted to be, and then the injury really set me back and really took a lot out of me.
"But these past few games I felt like I’m starting to get back into who I am and the shape and form I expected myself to be in this whole year. I’ve just got to continue to grow."