Up until last season, Jake Walgenbach was a quarterback.
Seems hard to imagine that now. For the past two years, Walgenbach has made his name on defense as one of the best safeties in the area.
Then again, with what Walgenbach was able to do at safety for the Fond du Lac football team, he was essentially the quarterback of the defense. The skills he developed under center translated perfectly to his new role and made him an invaluable player for the Cardinals.
Walgenbach is the 2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Defensive Football Player of the Year, an honor that comes after a season in which the 6-foot-4 senior helped guide Fond du Lac to the Valley Football Association South title and Level 3 of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs.
Back in 2013, when Walgenbach was a sophomore, his path as a football player seemed unclear. With starting quarterback Jack Nejedlo’s season-ending knee injury early on, Walgenbach was thrust into the backup QB role behind Quinn Woelfel and even started a varsity game when Woelfel was sick. But with Nejedlo returning for his senior season and Woelfel back as well, it was obvious that Walgenbach wasn’t going to see much time as a quarterback for Fond du Lac.
Moving to defense, Walgenbach soon began to play safety for the JV team and earned the starting role on the varsity squad a few games into his junior season. He’s been there ever since — earning first team all-VFA South honors both as a junior and senior. This year, he was named to the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Northeast Region team as a defensive back and was an honorable mention on the WFCA all-state team.
The numbers (37 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery) don’t even begin to tell the story of how important Walgenbach was for a Cardinals defense that allowed just 13.5 points per game in 2015.
“He’s really smart,” Fond du Lac coach Mike Gnewuch said of Walgenbach. “When it comes to football, he really was. He made all the calls. We’re a split-field team, which means we’re running two different coverages every single play and he was making calls on both sides. He was telling strong side what to do, as well as weak side. Having a junior in Keagan (Berandt) playing right next to him, I think he really helped Keagan out and helped him along throughout the season. I think he made Keagan a better football player, which is something you’re always looking for in seniors.”
At 6-foot-4, Walgenbach’s height and wingspan gave him a natural advantage that many defensive backs don’t possess. Factor in his speed, ball skills and knowledge of the passing game and he was able to roam the field like few others could.
“He was tremendous as far as his ball skills go,” Gnewuch said. “If a ball was ever up in the air, you never had to question it because Jake was going to go get it. That was something he showed he could do last year as well as this year. He covered so much ground in the secondary, too. When Marquette ran that fullback option pass late in the game against us (in Level 3 of the playoffs), the ground that Jake covered was unbelievable. I saw we had a guy there so I wasn’t worried about them completing the pass, but to pick it off — and Jake came from the backside all the way across the field to pick it off. So he was able to cover a tremendous area of grass.”
As the last line of defense, Walgenbach was crucial not only in the passing game, but also against the run. Although he didn’t make a ton of tackles in 2015 — which in itself showed the strength of Fond du Lac’s defense — he would almost always succeed when forced to do so.
“He was probably the best tackler on the team,” Gnewuch said. “Everybody misses tackles, Jake had by far the fewest amount of tackles missed. Percentage-wise, he was the best tackler on the team. You put that all together and he was just a sound, sound football player and had a tremendous season.”
While all of his physical skills contributed to Walgenbach’s success in 2015, it was his knowledge of the passing game that ultimately bumped him from a good safety to a great one. That all goes back to his days as a quarterback.
“It helped out because some of the formations I knew, and it just made it easier on me because I was recently a quarterback,” Walgenbach said. “I was cornerback at the beginning of last year for JV and they moved me to safety once in a while. I played cornerback, safety and quarterback in JV games at the beginning of last year and once Kyle (Pierce) got hurt, I stepped in at safety.”
Added Gnewuch: “He’s learned the game, he’s become a student of the game. … He’s got experience on both sides of the ball and I think that helped him on the defensive side, having that knowledge. I really do think the sky’s the limit for him.”
However, all of that still doesn’t completely account for how important Walgenbach was for Fond du Lac this year. As the Cardinals’ punter, Walgenbach made a huge impact on the game from special teams as well, flipping field position on numerous occasions and helping his own cause on defense. A first team all-VFA South selection in that position as well, Walgenbach excelled in his first year as a punter.
“Jason (Toshner) punted for three years for us and Jake had a higher average than Jason did any one of the three years,” Gnewuch said. “He averaged about 40 yards a kick and some of the games he just turned the field because of his punts. One that kind of jumps out is the first time we played Neenah and he had some punts that pinned them deep. We were still young offensively and to be able to turn the field like that, because we played pretty good on defense that game, I think was a huge help to our offense.
“Having an athlete at punter is such a huge, tremendous asset that I know coaches don’t overlook, but I think people might tend to overlook that from time to time. ‘Oh, he’s just a punter.’ No, he’s not just a punter, he’s a huge part of the game.”
All told, it was a tremendous senior season for Walgenbach. Transitioning from quarterback to defense isn’t easy, yet Walgenbach made it look that way. With two outstanding years as a safety and one as a punter, Walgenbach was the real deal.
“I’ll miss him. He’s a kid that it was always ‘Yes, Coach,’ ‘Sure, Coach,’ ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, Coach.’” Gnewuch said. “He never once questioned anything we did in four years. We moved him from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side of the ball, which he was in a pretty prestigious position at quarterback. There was never once an issue. Whatever it takes to make the team better is what Jake did and I’m going to miss him, that’s for sure.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL
2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Football Team
QB, Blake Bauer, St. Mary’s Springs, Jr.
RB, Justin Maratik, Fond du Lac, Sr.
RB, Fintan Floyd, St. Mary’s Springs, Jr.
RB, Jordan Michael, Lomira, Sr.
WR, Mitch McFarlane, Winnebago Lutheran, Sr.
WR, Tyler Wiza, St. Mary’s Springs, Sr.
OL, Mark Dilling, Fond du Lac, Sr.
OL, Brett VandenBoogaard, Fond du Lac, Sr.
OL, Adam Kinyon, Lomira, Jr.
OL, Max Wuest, St. Mary’s Springs, Sr.
OL, Tanner Haase, Winnebago Lutheran, Jr.
P, Jake Walgenbach, Fond du Lac, Sr.
DL, Aron Frank, Fond du Lac, Sr.
DL, Michael Buetow, St. Mary’s Springs, Jr.
DL, James Huey, Winnebago Lutheran, Sr.
DL, Gage Zahradnik, Fond du Lac, Sr.
LB, Devon Krzanowski, Fond du Lac, Jr.
LB, Noah Ahlswede, Fond du Lac, Sr.
LB, Sam Spranger, St. Mary’s Springs, Sr.
LB, Clay Schueffner, St. Mary’s Springs, Soph.
DB, Ryan Collien, Fond du Lac, Sr.
DB, Christian Borges, Lomira, Sr.
DB, Jake Walgenbach, Fond du Lac, Sr.
K, Mason Herkstroeter, Winnebago Lutheran, Soph.
Honorable mentions: Campbellsport: Connor Weber, jr., te; Ty Lindsley, sr., ol. Fond du Lac: Will Wright, sr., te; Quinn Woelfel, sr., qb. Laconia: Austin Flood, sr., rb; Dustin Hobbs, sr., dl; Carter Greve, jr., p. Lomira: Mitchell Wroblewski, jr., lb. Mayville: Connelly Pankow, sr., lb; Austin Steger, jr., dl. North Fond du Lac: Caleb Catt, sr., rb; Drew Patel, sr., lb. Oakfield: Tyler Burbach, sr., qb/db; Ross Ellison, sr., rb; Brandon Williams, soph., wr/st; Jason Culver, jr., ol; Jordan Strong, soph., dl; Nick Ryan, sr., dl; DuWayne Balthazor, jr., lb. St. Mary’s Springs: Mason Steffes, jr., ol; Steve Braatz, sr., dl. Waupun: Jordan McGinnis, sr., wr; Brady Beekman, sr., te/lb. Winnebago Lutheran: Austin Burton, sr., p; Eric Schmitz, jr., db.