MADISON, Wis. -- There may not be another quarterback-tailback combination in college football that can measure up with Joel Stave and Dare Ogunbowale — on the keyboard. Both have played the piano since they were youngsters. “I’ve taken lessons since I was 7 and still play all the time,” said Ogunbowale. “At the bowl game, they had a beautiful grand piano in the hotel and Joel and I played a duet.”
Ogunbowale enjoys playing the blues, which matched his mood at about this time last year. The Badgers were still in training camp and about 10 days out from their opener against LSU in Houston and Ogunbowale wasn’t making much headway as a reserve defensive back.
“I was still a DB and still fighting for a special team’s spot,” recalled Ogunbowale, who was then an obscure walk-on from Milwaukee wearing No. 18 and trying to draw some positive attention. “My mindset was on making a splash on special teams and taking advantage of every rep. I got lost on the depth chart a little bit, so I just wanted to make sure I made an impact where I could.”
A year later, he’s still trying to make a splash and an impact -- about 10 days out from the opener against Alabama in Dallas -- only now it’s on offense as Corey Clement’s backup. “I’m just trying to play football,” he said. “I don’t try to think about the difference in the position that I’m in now. Last year, I was competing. This year, I’m competing. Not much has changed. Just my jersey number.”
Ogunbowale, who now wears No. 23, has been pushing himself while getting a push from Taiwan Deal, a redshirt freshman, also vying for game reps as a backup. There’s an interesting dynamic at work between Clement and Ogunbowale given the latter was a good friend and roommate of Melvin Gordon, whose departure to the NFL has brought Clement and Ogunbowale closer together.
“Me and Corey did a lot of extra work in addition to the summer conditioning,” Ogunbowale said. “It was a lot of mental stuff, whether it be working out late at night or just watching a lot of film. We definitely put in some extra hours to make sure that we were ready to go in [training] camp. Corey’s one of my best friends, I’m always with him. He works hard and he’s a good person.”
When a wide-eyed Gordon was still figuring out his role within the offense — he had 82 carries through his first two seasons in a combined 17 game appearances because of an injury as a freshman — he was schooled on the Wisconsin running back tradition by Montee Ball and James White. Gordon was conscientious, a student of the game, and passed his knowledge on to Clement and Ogunbowale.
“Obviously, me not having a lot of running back experience,” said Ogunbowale ,who last played the position when he was in the fifth grade, “it was nice to have Melvin help me out with just the mentality of a running back — thinking like a running back and having the vision and the patience [to succeed at the position]. Understanding the tradition here is something that you have to uphold.”
If you’re wondering what that entails, Ogunbowale singled out the “toughness that comes with it” -- playing tailback for the Badgers. “You have to want to be the best, and me and Corey and Taiwan talk about that,” said Ogunbowale, adding the “standard being the standard” is part of their commitment. “That’s how we see it because that’s how the running backs who came before us saw it.”
Ogunbowale, a redshirt junior, stands out in this crowd because of his unique background. His dad, Greg, played football, the international brand of football, soccer, in Nigeria. His mom, Yolanda, played softball at DePaul. His sister, Arike, was not only the best high school basketball player in Wisconsin last year, maybe the best ever, but one of the best in the nation. She’s now at Notre Dame.
“We’re extremely competitive; we’d be in church and trying to compete to get the Bible first,” said Dare Ogunbowale who reluctantly conceded, “She’s definitely a better basketball player than me. Throughout high school, I would say, ‘No, she’s not better.’ But I’ve come to terms with that now and I can’t wait to watch her play [for the Irish] to see what she can do.”
The hoops connection has pretty deep roots. One of Ogunbowale’s cousins, Ryan Evans, was a mainstay on the Wisconsin basketball team from 2009 to 2013; he appeared in 138 career games, then a school record, including 71 starts. Another cousin, Diamond Stone, was the Player of the Year in the state of Wisconsin and one of the top prep prospects in the country. He’s headed to Maryland.
Two of Ogunbowale’s closest friends, outside of football, are Sam Dekker, the first-round draft choice of the Houston Rockets, and Zak Showalter, a returning letterwinner with the Badgers. Ogunbowale spent time this summer with Dekker at his home in Sheboygan. “I’m excited to see what they do this season,” he said of Dekker and Showalter. “And I know they’re excited to watch me play.”
Ogunbowale didn’t play much through the first two games last season. He was on special teams and an afterthought on defense, a spare cornerback. Lacking depth behind Gordon and Clement -- Deal and Caleb Kinlaw were injured; so were fullbacks Derek Watt and Derek Straus -- then-UW coach Gary Andersen moved Ogunbowale to tailback based on his effort in a “speed in space” drill.
The only time that Ogunbowale ran with the football at Milwaukee Marquette high school was on kick returns. But he’s a fast learner; at that, he’s a biomedical engineering major. UW sophomore nose guard Conor Sheehy wasn’t surprised his old Marquette teammate could make the transition. “He’s really athletic,” Sheehy said, “and he’s a really smart guy who picks up the game quickly.”
On the final play of the third quarter against Bowling Green on Sept. 20, Ogunbowale ran onto the field and replaced Clement at tailback. On his first collegiate touch, he picked up seven yards. He finished out the series, which resulted in a Rafael Gaglianone field goal. And he finished the game, a 68-17 rout, with 14 rushes for 94 yards. “That was a lot different than I’m running now,” he said.
The difference? “I’m definitely more confident,” said Ogunbowale, who gave a “shout-out” to former UW running backs coach Thomas Brown, now at Georgia, for teaching him the ropes last year. “The biggest influence on where I’m at right now is Coach (John) Settle. He has kind of taken me under his wing and made sure I knew that I was doing; he’s definitely helped me out a lot.”
Off training wheels, but still raw, he has been getting up to speed by watching others. “I try to find running backs that are comparable to my size,” said the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Ogunbowale, who has put on more than 10 pounds during the offseason. In general, he likes to watch elite NFL players like LeSean McCoy and Jamal Charles because “I’m just trying to have more dimensions to my running style.”
More importantly, Ogunbowale said that he hasn’t forgotten what Gordon taught him about preparation and “I’ve tried to emulate his work ethic.” By doing so, he’s striking the right note, something that he has experience with.