Nolan Rucci remembers with great detail the first time he saw Madison.
The sights of the city first caught Rucci’s attention while rolling into town in an RV his parents borrowed from a family member. The lakes on either side of downtown, the Capitol, the University of Wisconsin’s campus, State Street — all of it immediately appealed to him.
The trip five years ago was a recruiting visit for his older brother Hayden, so he and his family met with Joe Rudolph, UW’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, and tight ends coach Mickey Turner. That stay planted seeds in Rucci’s mind about Madison’s atmosphere and the people running the Badgers’ program.
Those seeds grew into roots that helped UW win an intense, nationwide recruiting battle for Rucci, a five-star offensive tackle out of Lititz, Pennsylvania.
“I think just seeing that for the first time and getting introduced to the coaching staff, even before I was getting recruited … I think having that early contact and starting to develop those relationships definitely helped me out,” Rucci said.
Rucci plans to sign his National Letter of Intent on Wednesday — the first day of the early signing period — to make things official. Rucci is ranked in the top seven nationally at his position and was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country.
The Badgers have 21 known accepted offers in the 2021 class, all of whom could sign their NLIs on Wednesday. The Badgers’ class, led by Rucci, is ranked No. 14 nationally by Rivals, No. 16 by 247Sports and No. 17 by ESPN, which would be the program’s best rankings in the internet era.
UW is getting a player in Rucci whose ethos matches the program’s. The Badgers also are getting their next potential star tackle who comes in with an NFL pedigree and a 6-foot-8, 295-pound frame looking to maul people.
“(He’s) the overall package,” said Bob Locker, Rucci’s coach at Warwick High School. “You can coach for a really long time and not see somebody that big, that athletic, that intelligent, that humble, that courteous, that respectful.”
Surrounded by coaches
Todd Rucci wasn’t projecting either of his boys would be Division I football players. He and his wife, Stacy, just wanted them playing sports, and many of them.
Todd and Stacy coached their sons in a number of sports growing up — mainly football, basketball and lacrosse — but the Ruccis also had their sons involved in swimming, ice skating, skiing and other activities. Both of them had come from athletic backgrounds, with Stacy being an All-American field hockey player at Penn State and Todd playing eight years for the New England Patriots after a successful career with the Nittany Lions.
“We’ve had a ball with it,” Todd said. “They’ve been great responding to it. We just enjoy being able to be along for the journey with them at certain levels of their life. I think we’re all better for it. … I think we’re able to kind of be involved with a lot of things maybe other parents aren’t able to just because we were coaching their sport.”
When it came to football, Todd coached his sons from youth league through high school, helping on Locker’s staff not long after retiring from the NFL. Rucci was in a rare position to learn directly from his dad, who played guard for the Patriots after playing tackle for Penn State.
“It’s been awesome. There are sometimes where it’s like, ‘Man, I really wish it wasn’t my dad reaming me out right now,’” Rucci said, laughing. “His experience in the NFL and at the collegiate level, I think it’s been invaluable. (Having) size and athleticism alone is one thing, but I think it really has taken my game to the next level. The amount of technique that he’s been able to teach me as an NFL veteran, it’s been awesome just getting to pick his brain on things when we’re watching games and stuff. It’s been pretty special.”
Todd loved the chance to pass on what he knew to Nolan, as he had with Hayden. But Hayden’s body and skills saw him moved to tight end during his prep career, and Todd says he couldn’t help as much with route running and receiving techniques Hayden was learning.
As Rucci grew through high school, the level of detail Todd could share increased.
“It’s been awesome just to be able to give him some things that took me a long time to figure out,” Todd said. “And then having the opportunity to give it to a kid at the high school level who, No. 1, can understand it and use it and is able to incorporate it during the game.
“Mentally how to play the game as an offensive tackle, how you set, the way you use different techniques against different types of pass rushers. … I think the best thing about Nolan is he wants to get better. He understands what he has, but he really wants to get better.”
Rucci’s high school team went 8-0 this season before its postseason run was cut short due to issues with COVID-19. But Locker said he knew throughout his time coaching the Ruccis they were getting coached at home probably more often than they were on the practice field.
“His father’s a fantastic coach, got a great working knowledge of the game,” Locker said. “The conversations that took place in their house, it’s pretty high-level football stuff.”
The pursuit of Rucci intensified as his recruiting profile grew. He held offers from every big-name program in the country, including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State and UW.
He still was undecided this spring when the pandemic shut down in-person recruiting. That eliminated some visits Rucci had planned and parked him in front of a computer conducting Zoom calls with coaches vying for his commitment. Todd said Rucci was spending five to six hours a night, multiple nights per week, on Zoom calls when recruiting was at its height.
Rucci kept an even keel as the attention around him swirled. He narrowed his field to nine programs April 20, all of which featured two non-negotiable traits — strong engineering programs and coaches capable of pushing him to the next level.
Rucci said watching Hayden go through the recruiting process was crucial to not letting it overwhelm him when his turn came.
“I got to kind of see it from the outside perspective and to see how well he went through it and the things he did and how he kept himself level-headed and focused on the high school level and focused on football season,” Rucci said.
His parents having been through recruiting as athletes and parents provided a guide as well. Having those voices in his life helped him filter what was extraneous and what mattered.
“Being able to see the things that I like in schools, what’s kind of gimmicky as far as recruiting goes, and really what’s the real stuff you should be focusing on? The people, the coaches, the guys in the locker room,” Rucci said. “I think being able to see that and then going through it myself, it was awesome because it’s an experience a lot of guys don’t have.”
UW separated itself in this area.
Badgers coaches weren’t pitching a brand or an idea to Rucci. They showed who they were and what their program was. Rucci announced his oral commitment to UW before a high school practice Sept. 8.
“It’s almost like the lack thereof of them selling (anything),” Rucci said about the appeal of the Badgers’ staff. “They’re not trying to sell Wisconsin to you. I think that was one of the important things for me, was how down to Earth the coaching staff was, how genuine the coaches were and the players and the guys there. Not every school’s like that.”
Hayden was there serving as an example of the UW experience as Rucci weighed his options over the past two years.
Hayden — who’s getting his first playing time this season as UW’s No. 2 tight end — first and foremost wanted the best for his brother, but he couldn’t help but thinking the Badgers were the right choice for him.
“Absolutely he was waving the flag the whole way,” Rucci said, “And I appreciate that because not every brother is that way. It was cool because of how supportive he was of me. Obviously he wanted to come to Wisconsin, but he understood that it was my decision at the end of the day.”
Hayden admits it was a difficult position to be in. The two trained together during the summer when COVID-19 shut down traditional gym options, and while he respected Nolan’s process, he wanted to share a uniform with his brother again.
“I was always trying to get him to come here, but then again trying to help him see that there could be other places,” Hayden said. “But just telling him about my experience and why I love this place, I think that’s why I wanted him to be able to find home here. Just to know that it’s not just me saying it, but for him to understand that.”
Todd believes Hayden’s first-hand accounts of the locker room, coaching staff and environment he was in helped swing things the Badgers’ way.
“Hayden absolutely loves everything about Wisconsin, the team, the football program, the academics, Madison itself, everything surrounding it,” Todd said. “That was real. You didn’t have to sell that on a recruiting trip or be told about it on a Zoom call or be shown a video about it. He got that from the past 18 months (from Hayden), and I think that really helped him confirm a lot of the things he had in his head.”
Brothers playing together isn’t new for the Badgers, who currently have John and Leo Chenal on the roster, and could have another set of siblings in Jack and Bryan Sanborn next season depending on Jack Sanborn’s NFL decision.
But the dream of playing together again becoming a reality almost was surreal for the Rucci brothers. The last game they played together was after a second-round playoff game in Hayden’s senior season of 2018.
“Just walking off the field with my brother like, ‘Damn, is this really it? Am I even going to be able to play next to him again?’” Hayden said. “In the back of my mind, I had that feeling like, ‘Well there’s a chance that he could be coming here with me.’ And then to realize that’s actually coming true, I think it’s so exciting. I can’t tell you how pumped I am to be able to be next to him in a couple of years.”
Rucci plans to enroll at UW next fall and is part of an offensive line class that features two other four-star recruits: Grafton’s JP Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman, the top-ranked player out of Minnesota.
Rucci said he expects one thing when he arrives on campus — hard work.
“Recruiting’s been great and it’s cool to be recognized nationally and everything like that, but at the end of the day, all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you get on the practice field and in the locker room,” he said.
“I think when I get there, I’m ready to earn my stripes and get after it. Start to get to work with the guys in my class and the guys ahead of me.”
Get to know the Badgers’ 2021 recruiting class
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2021 football recruiting class
Jack Pugh, a tight end out of Hilliard, Ohio, announced his commitment to the Badgers in late May
Pugh — ranked a four-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN, and a three-star prospect by rivals — is ranked in the top 12 of tight ends in his class. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound prospect had scholarship offers from more than 20 programs, including a majority of the Big Ten Conference schools.
Pugh has the prototypical size to play as an on-the-line tight end, but has also split out as a receiver often through his high school career. A standout basketball player, Pugh also showed explosiveness as a defensive end for Hilliard Bradley High School.
Jake Ratzlaff joined a star-studded group of defensive recruits when he committed to the Badgers in late November.
Ratzlaff is a four-star prospect per 247Sports’ composite rankings and a three-star recruit per Rivals.
Ratzlaff was committed to Minnesota to play hockey, but decided to pursue football and chose UW over offers from Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Northwestern and Penn State.
Peterson, a three-star outside linebacker/defensive end from Akron, Ohio, committed to UW on June 1, 2020.
He was one of the Badgers’ top targets on defense since the spring of 2019. He tallied 21 sacks in his junior season at Archbishop Hoban, and chose the Badgers over offers from Alabama, Michigan, West Virginia and more.
247Sports, Rivals and ESPN all rate Peterson — a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder — as a three-star prospect. He’s the first linebacker in the 2021 class.
Mike Jarvis, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman out of Medford, N.J., announced his commitment to the Badgers on June 3, 2020.
A three-star prospect on 247Sports and a two-star per Rivals, Jarvis has potential to play as a defensive or offensive lineman, although he’s been primarily recruited for his ability on defense.
Jarvis picked UW over scholarship offers from Duke, Florida State, Indiana, Nebraska, Princeton, Rutgers and others.
Outside linebacker/defensive end TJ Bollers added to a hot recruiting streak for the Badgers when he committed in June 2020.
Rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, Bollers held offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State and most of the Big Ten. He narrowed his choices to Alabama, California, Iowa State, Nebraska, Northwestern and UW before making his decision..
Bollers — listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds — is ranked the 98th overall recruit in the country by Rivals, 147th by 247Sports and 200th by ESPN.
Hallman, a 6-foot cornerback out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tweeted his commitment to the Badgers in late June 2020.
Hallman, ranked a four-star prospect by Rivals and a three-star by 247Sports and ESPN, had offers from at least 16 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Florida and Florida State.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a key piece to Hallman choosing the Badgers. Hallman has said in multiple interviews that he and Leonhard spoke often and that Leonhard was the kind of coach he wanted to play for. Leonhard was also key in UW landing another 2021 prospect out of Florida, linebacker Jake Cheney.
Adding Hallman to the fold continues a strong South Florida connection to UW’s secondary — current Badgers’ defensive backs Faion Hicks, Semar Melvin and Rachard Wildgoose are all from that area.
Nate Van Zelst joined the 2021 class the day before February's signing day.
A five-star kicker per Kohl's Kicking, the Wilmette, Illinois, product is the first specialist to join the class. Van Zelst had a long field goal of 49 yards as a junior, but wasn't able to play a senior season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garrison Solliday became the first post-signing day commitment for the Badgers when he announced he was joining the class on Feb. 8, 2021.
The Mendota Heights, Minnesota, product projects as a linebacker. The 6-foot, 220-pounder was an all-state football player and wrestler in Minnesota.
He accepted a walk-on offer.
Excited to announce my commitment to further my education and athletic career at the University of Wisconsin! Thank you to my coaches, family, friends and everyone who helped me get here.❤️🤍 #Badgers #wiscon21n @CoachBostadUW @tmehlhaff10 @CoachKhalif @CoachDanOB pic.twitter.com/oXpiDsnmE0— Gsolliday (@Gsolliday3) February 8, 2021
Grover Bortolotti joined the last in mid-February 2021 as a walk-on.
Bortolotti played running back and defensive back at Whitefish Bay, which went 7-0 his senior season. He's listed as an athlete by Rivals, so he could play safety or move to a different role once camp begins.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder had three interceptions his senior year.
Skyler Bell — a 6-foot-1, 185-pound prospect out of Watertown, Conn. — had upwards of 18 scholarship offers, including other Big Ten programs like Iowa, Rutgers, and Northwestern before deciding on UW.
Bell is the first receiver to join the class, announcing his commitment in August, but the Badgers are expecting to add more.
Bell is a three-star recruit per 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals.
Arrowhead High School product Owen Arnett joined the class in early March as a preferred walk-on.
Arnett originally committed to Virginia in November, but decided to stay closer to home and play at UW. The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect projects as a linebacker.
A second-team all-state edge player as a senior, Arnett had 67 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions, according to Wissports.com.
UW won an intense recruiting battle for Rucci, whose older brother Hayden is a Badgers tight end. Rucci held offers from nearly every top program in the country, but had narrowed his list to Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and UW before announcing in early September.
Rucci is a five-star prospect and the No. 16 overall recruit in the country per 247Sports, while Rivals tabs him No. 29 and ESPN ranks him 33rd; Rivals and ESPN list him as a four-star recruit.
The Lititz, Penn., product is listed at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, and his father, Todd, played at Penn State before a seven-year career in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
Al Ashford III was a surprise pick up for the Badgers when he committed in early September. Ashford III’s commitment came seemingly out of nowhere, as he didn’t publicly announce a scholarship offer from UW prior to choosing the school.
Ashford III is listed as a three-star recruit on both 247Sports and Rivals, and is the top-rated cornerback in Colorado per 247Sports. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds.
Fond du Lac prospect Braelon Allen kicked off the Badgers' 2022 class with a bang when he committed in July 2020. But he reclassified to the 2021 class in September, giving the class its seventh four-star-or-better recruit in the 2021 class.
Allen — listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds — has been recruited as a safety, the position he’s played for Fond Du Lac, but 247Sports now lists him as an inside linebacker. Per 247Sports’ composite rankings, Allen is the No. 6 inside linebacker in the 2021 class.
JP Benzschawel, an offensive lineman out of Grafton, was the first recruit in the Badgers’ 2021 class, continuing the family tradition at UW.
Benzschawel’s brothers, Beau (2015-18) and Luke (2016-19) played offensive line and tight end, respectively, for the Badgers. His father, Scott (1983-87) and uncle Eric (1988-92) also played football for UW.
Benzschawel is one of the top-ranked offensive tackles in the country. A four-star recruit on 247sports, and ESPN, and a three-star on Rivals, Benzschawel is a top-200 recruit nationally by 247sports and ESPN.
Jackson Acker, a running back from Verona, committed to the Badgers soon after receiving an offer in June 2019.
UW was Acker’s first scholarship offer after his sophomore season, but he used it as momentum for a strong junior campaign at Verona High School. He was a first-team running back on the Wisconsin State Journal’s All-Area team, rushing for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.
Acker is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Deacon Hill, a quarterback from Santa Barbara, Calif., committed to the Badgers in July 2019.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound, pro-style prospect, Hill was part of wave of recruiting commitments for UW. Hill turned down offers from Kansas State and Nevada in favor of the Badgers.
Hill turned heads at an Elite 11 regional camp in California with his big arm and deep throws. He is the lone quarterback thus far in the 2021 class, and the 2020 class added just one in walk-on Daniel Wright.
Hill is listed as a three-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Loyal Crawford, a running back from Eau Claire, Wis., committed to the Badgers in August 2019.
A fast, shifty and explosive back, Crawford was limited to five games as a junior due to injury. Still, he tallied 671 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. He was one of the first freshmen to suit up for a varsity game at Eau Claire Memorial High School.
Crawford — listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds — is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
UW’s scholarship offer the first Division I offer Crawford had received, according to multiple outlets.
Riley Mahlman, an offensive lineman from Lakeville, Minn., committed to the Badgers after watching them defeat Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in September 2019.
Mahlman is ranked as a four-star prospect by 247sports and ESPN, and a three-star by Rivals. He’s ranked as the top recruit in the state of Minnesota by 247sports and ESPN, and the No. 2 Minnesota product by Rivals. UW beat out Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Florida and others for Mahlman.
With Mahlman and 2020 linebacker Kaden Johnson, the Badgers secured the top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in consecutive years.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tackle also played tight end for Lakeville South High School.
Bryan Sanborn, an inside linebacker from Lake Zurich, Ill., committed to UW in December 2019.
Sanborn, the younger brother of Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound prospect had a handful of Power Five offers, including Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Bryan’s late father, Paul, played football at Oregon.
Ayo Adebogun, a linebacker/defensive end hailing from Mequon, committed to the Badgers in December 2019.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was a second-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Associated Press as a junior, a season in which he tallied 16 sacks and 75 total tackles.
The Homestead High School product is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Hunter Wohler, a safety out of Muskego, orally committed to UW just before Christmas 2019.
Rated by multiple recruiting sites as the best or second-best prospect in Wisconsin in his class, Wohler helped Muskego to an unbeaten record and a WIAA Division I state championship as a junior. Wohler had 122 total tackles and two interceptions as a junior, and he was named the state’s Associated Press' player of the year.
Wohler — listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds — is rated as a four-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals, and ESPN. He’s ranked as the No. 298 overall prospect in the 2021 class by ESPN.
Jake Chaney, a linebacker out of Lehigh Acres, Fla., committed to the Badgers in March 2020.
The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect is a three-star recruit according to 247sports and Rivals.
He was the District 7A player of the year last season after recording 100 tackles as a junior. Jake Chaney’s father, James, is his coach at Lehigh Senior High School and played at Florida State from 1988-1991.
Chaney was the third linebacker and ninth overall recruit in the 2021 class.
Antwan Roberts announced in April that he’d be attending the University of Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pound back is a three-star recruit per Rivals and 247sports.
UW was the only Big Ten program to offer Roberts a scholarship. He was also considering offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri and Vanderbilt. He also played defensive back for his high school, Pope John Paul II.