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Stock report: Wisconsin players on defense impressing through 10 spring practices

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Who’s picked it up this spring for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard?

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Welcome to the home stretch for the Wisconsin Badgers’ spring camp schedule. After Tuesday’s session, 10 of their 15 allowed practices (which includes next Friday’s spring game) have been completed.

As prefaced before, spring camp is the chance for players to learn more on both sides of the ball and test their limits. Coaches experiment with position changes (see: Arrington Farrar, Natrell Jamerson, Garrett Rand) to strengthen particular groups or plug holes offset by injuries.

A number of Badgers have taken advantage of their opportunities and could take momentum into summer conditioning and fall camp in August.

On Saturday, B5Q highlighted the players on offense who were standing out. Now, let’s look at the opposite side of the ball at those shining on defense.

Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk

The former eight-man football standout from Kansas may in fact be the media darling of camp. A lot of his work apparently has come with the second team, but the hulking redshirt freshman has made his presence felt. At 6’7, 296 pounds—he told BadgerBlitz.com’s John Veldhuis he was currently at 302—he’s a physical presence with a high upside.

Loudermilk has been a nuisance in the backfield, and though I’m not a coach by any means, has shown significant flashes in his first set of spring sessions.

During Friday’s scrimmage, Loudermilk did get work with the first-team defense while senior Conor Sheehy rested. There’s a lot to like about his performance early on, as head coach Paul Chryst noted he was happy with the young player’s development, yet there are still opportunities for growth.

“I think anytime within the lines—offensive line, defensive line—there’s so much technique involved, and there is such a fine line,” Chryst said when asked about Loudermilk. “The shorter you get those spaces, a six-inch mistake on the line is like a two-yard mistake the further away you get from the ball. There’s a ton to learn, but Isaiahh comes and he works, and he’s certainly talented. He’s getting a lot of reps, so this has been a good spring for him.”

The next logical question is if he can become a sleeper pick to break the two-deep at the start of the setinason. His progression should be watched for not just 2017 but also next year, when ends Chikwe Obasih, Alec James, and Sheehy all exhaust their eligibility.

Cornerbacks Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson

Replacing seniors Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso from an overachieving secondary could be a tall task, especially in accounting for the nine interceptions and solid coverage seen from Wisconsin in 2016.

Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jim Leonhard, however, may already have the answers. Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson, along with senior Derrick Tindal, could reload the cornerback position in the defensive backfield.

The past week in particular when B5Q has been present at practices, Nelson has made plays, including an interception in Friday’s scrimmage against redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook in a first team vs. first team scenario. On Tuesday, a pass break-up in red-zone 7-on-7s yielded an interception for safety Joe Ferguson.

The 5’11, 204-pound Nelson came from Hawaii, where he played in 23 games with 21 starts and recorded 21 pass break-ups. He has two years left of eligibility and with the expectations coming into the spring of being the starter, there’s a lot of hype for what he’ll bring to the defense.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Ohio State
Nick Nelson deflecting a pass while with Hawaii vs. Ohio State in 2015.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Tindal brings an energy and confidence to the defense that’s showed this spring. It’s crazy to think four years have already gone by for the young man who owns and patrols “Tindal Island.”

Whether it’s been snagging some interceptions during the Badgers’ first scrimmage, causing some break-ups, or showing a charisma in a secondary that has three projected starters from Florida, Tindal will have the ability to have a big senior year.

Shelton himself on Tuesday proclaimed the secondary to be, at the very least, in good shape:

Safety Joe Ferguson

Starter D’Cota Dixon has rested at times this spring, limiting his reps. That has allowed others, like former walk-on and Madison Memorial standout Joe Ferguson to receive snaps with the starters.

Dixon will be the strong safety in 2017, but Ferguson, the redshirt senior, has quietly put together a solid spring camp. That includes another interception on Tuesday during red-zone 7-on-7s and playing well during last Friday’s scrimmage.

Last Tuesday, he may have made one of the plays of the spring, diving for a tipped-up ball that went from the left hash to the middle of the field to make an interception on the last play of practice.

Injuries are unfortunately part of the game, so building depth during these spring sessions is important. Ferguson has played in 44 games since 2013 (he received a medical redshirt his freshman year) and has experience in game-time situations in certain subpackages mostly dealing with an extra tight end or “jumbo” type packages. The 6’1, 195-pound safety could actually break UW’s career record for games played in 2017.

Not bad for a former walk-on whose grandfather, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, reinvigorated the football program over 27 years ago.

Honorable mention: Outside linebacker Garret Dooley, cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams