Wisconsin OL Ryan Ramczyk made right choice for football over welding

MADISON, Wis. -- One of the best stories in college football is a 6-foot-6, 314-pound offensive lineman who attended four schools before ever seriously considering Division I football. He is someone who quit the sport and thought he might become a welder or a law enforcement member. He is an absolute force who has risen from obscurity into one of the superior players at his position in the country.

He is Wisconsin left tackle Ryan Ramczyk. And if you do not yet know the name, you soon will. Ten weeks ago, Ramczyk (pronounced RAM-check), was preparing to play the first FBS game of his college career. Now, many NFL scouts believe he is a bona fide late first-round draft pick this spring -- if he decides to leave school a year early.

It is a path Ramczyk can only describe as "crazy."

"I don't know if you can find too many guys that have gone to four other schools before they end up here," he said.

Ramczyk's play is a big reason the Badgers have improved their rushing attack dramatically in recent weeks. His skills will be on display again when No. 7 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) plays host to Illinois (3-6, 2-4) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The winding tale began after Ramczyk was named first-team all-state as a senior at Wisconsin's Stevens Point Area Senior High School in 2011. Current Badgers coach Paul Chryst left his position as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator weeks later to become head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and offered Ramczyk a scholarship. But Ramczyk didn't want to travel that far from home and declined the offer.

Wisconsin's coaching staff was in the midst of considerable turnover and lost offensive line coach Bob Bostad, so Ramczyk slipped through the school's recruiting cracks. He signed with Division II Winona State University in Minnesota but didn't stick around long enough to play. He felt burned out, skipped a year of football and attended Madison Area Technical College and Mid-State Technical College in Stevens Point for one semester each. His father, Randy, thought Ryan's football career was done. He suggested he pursue welding because it was "a pretty high in demand occupation that pays pretty well."

"Initially, I was like, 'You know, maybe football is not for me,'" Ryan Ramczyk said. "It's not what I want to do. But just being out of the game made me realize how much I really do love it and wanted to be back."

Ramczyk returned to football in his hometown by attending Division III University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for two seasons, where he dominated and earned first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore. He started contemplating the move up to Division I around the same time Chryst came back to become Wisconsin's head coach in December 2014. The stars had aligned, Ramczyk thought, and soon he was on his way to Madison as a Badger.

Wisconsin center Michael Deiter said Ramczyk's natural gifts were obvious from his first days on campus during summer workouts in 2015.

"Right away, you could tell he was an athletic freak," Deiter said. "It was like, 'Holy s---, that's the new guy? Where'd he come from?' ... I couldn't believe it. I thought we were halfway athletic for our size. And then Ramczyk came in and blew us out of the water. That's been the standard for us ever since. We're just trying to get to Ramczyk's level."

Ramczyk was forced to sit out last season under NCAA transfer rules, but coaches knew they were sitting on a gold mine. He was immediately penciled in as a starter for 2016. In the span of two months this season, Ramczyk has become the Badgers' most consistent, dominant lineman.

"When you look at his eyes in the huddle, he's determined to put somebody on his butt," Badgers running back Corey Clement said.

According to ESPN NFL draft analyst Steve Muench and Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo, Ramczyk projects as a potential late first-round pick in the 2017 draft. Palazzolo released a midseason NFL mock draft board last month and listed Ramczyk as the No. 29 overall pick.

Only one other offensive tackle, Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey, was listed ahead of Ramczyk. Other tackles fighting for draft position include Alabama's Cam Robinson and Florida State's Roderick Johnson, although both are underclassmen like Ramczyk and could return to school. Ramczyk could be helped by what is considered to be a weak class of offensive linemen, the scouts said.

Palazzolo noted Pro Football Focus has a computerized system that tracks every snap, assigning positive and negative grades for each play. Ramczyk has graded out as one of the top-rated run blockers and best tackles. His agility and versatility for his size makes him a rare commodity.

These days, Ramczyk doesn't spend much time contemplating the big picture of his ascension at Wisconsin. But sometimes, he admits, he'll talk to his girlfriend and marvel at how far they've come.

"It's like, 'Remember when we talked about this when we were in high school? What if we could both go here?'" Ramczyk said. "And now it's real. So it's pretty crazy."

In the coming months, Ramczyk will have a difficult, albeit exciting, decision to make. He has only just arrived at Wisconsin, can earn a degree with another year of school and has room to improve on the football field. At the same time, not many humans on the planet have the talent and potential to be a first-round NFL draft choice, and the window of opportunity to capitalize is short.

At the very least, one of the best stories in college football has a few more chapters to write as Wisconsin pursues a Big Ten West title and a potential College Football Playoff berth. And then?

"I'll talk about it with my parents or coaches, and we'll see what's the best option for me," Ramczyk said. "Talking about a first-round pick, it would be tough. But right now, the focus is really just on the season."