When looking at the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers defense led by first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, it’s hard not to imagine the safeties playing a large role. After all, that was the position Leonhard patrolled as an All-American at Wisconsin.
Leonhard’s squad is currently fourth in the FBS in total yards allowed and tied for eighth in scoring defense. When examining the overall success of the unit, one shouldn’t look much further than the starting safeties to understand how they are so successful. Junior D’Cota Dixon and senior Natrell Jamerson are filling up the box score each week in the Badgers pro-style defense.
While the two now find themselves patrolling the back end of the defense together, they took very different paths to get here.
Dixon became a starter in 2016 and immediately made an impact. In the opener against No. 5 LSU, his late interception sent Wisconsin to a 16–14 upset win at Lambeau Field. He finished the season fourth on the team with 60 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions, trailing only fellow safety Leo Musso, who had five. Dixon also recovered and forced a fumble.
Prior to 2016, Dixon had appeared in a total of 16 games between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. His freshman season was cut short after three games due to injury, but he was later granted an additional year of eligibility. He became a junior in 2017, allowing him to anchor the Badger secondary for an additional season.
Dixon is off to a hot start in 2017, leading the defense in tackles with 27 and adding 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and one interception. All of Dixon’s sacks came this past weekend against Northwestern, and none was as big as the last one, which resulted in a safety and secured a victory over Northwestern on the Wildcats’ final drive.
D’Cota Dixon notched his first career safety yesterday and finished with a career-high 12 tackles and a career-best 1.5 sacks. #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/FHDfvv96Uh— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 1, 2017
While Dixon has been playing safety since he started at Wisconsin, Jamerson has appeared in several spots on Wisconsin’s depth chart.
Jamerson started as a wide receiver as a freshman in 2014, appearing in 12 games, rushing once for 23 yards and returning one kickoff for 21 yards. He then moved to cornerback as a sophomore and became the team’s primary kick returner. On defense, he recorded 14 tackles, but special teams was where he made his mark. He averaged 22.4 yards per return and took one to the house for 98 yards at Maryland.
Jamerson’s junior season was cut short by injury, as he only played eight games. He recorded a then-career-high five tackles against Purdue on Nov. 19.
Now a senior, Jamerson finds himself in yet another new position and is thriving. He currently has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and is tied for the team lead in interceptions at two with junior linebacker T.J. Edwards.
Jamerson’s best game in cardinal and white was easily his most recent against Northwestern, as he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of The Week after recording a career-high six tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and his only two career interceptions.
It’s a privilege s/o to the whole defense tho! https://t.co/ShSRm7mBh2— Natrell Jamerson (@Trellionn12) October 2, 2017
One of Jamerson's interceptions was taken back 36 yards for a touchdown, giving the Badgers a 31–10 lead over the Wildcats.
“Natrell Jamerson with the pick SIX!”— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 2, 2017
With 2 INTs (1 for a TD), 6 tkls and 1/2 a sack, Natrell is your Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week pic.twitter.com/rTdXnCwIuv
Wisconsin next faces Nebraska (3–2, 2–0 Big Ten) in a game that could go a long way toward deciding who will represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game. While Nebraska didn’t fare well in non-conference play, dropping back-to-back games at Oregon and then at home to Northern Illinois, the Cornhuskers are off to a good start in conference play after defeating Rutgers 27–17 and Illinois 28–6.
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee is currently fifth in the Big Ten with 228.8 yards per game, so Dixon and Jamerson could be busy defending the pass on Saturday. However, while Lee likes to air it out (as proven by his Big Ten-leading 170 pass attempts), he can be a bit erratic (as proven by his FBS-leading nine interceptions). Given this, there will be some opportunity for Dixon, Jamerson, and company to get some takeaways and continue their early success.