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Which Wisconsin starters on defense impressed in the spring?

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Breaking down the defense’s top spring performers.

Minnesota v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers’ spring football season has come and gone, 15 practices up and 15 down, after Friday night’s spring game.

Though these sessions won’t necessarily solidify positions or the depth chart for the Sept. 1 season opener against Utah State, players can gain much needed experience in these practices and use that momentum heading into summer conditioning and fall camp.

On Saturday, we looked at the presumed offensive starters for Wisconsin who appeared to pop from mid-March to late April.

Today, we look at our projected defensive starters that stood out during the past month (or those that could find significant playing time), and why Badgers fans should be excited.

Cornerback Nick Nelson

He hasn’t played a down of significant game-time football for Wisconsin, but the Hawaii transfer will play a big role in the Badgers’ defense and their secondary.

“I played against him everyday last year when we were running our offense and he was on scout team because he couldn’t play. He would be jumping routes,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said Friday after the spring game. “I just thought it was because he knew what route they were running, but he’s still doing it right now and it’s not because what route they were running. It’s because of his anticipation and his just natural ball skills.

“He’s a great corner and I can’t wait to watch him play this fall.”

Though he didn’t participate in the scrimmage portion of Friday’s spring game, Nelson flashed often during the majority of practices, making some interceptions and playing solid coverage.

According to Nelson, there weren’t many adjustments for him to make heading into the spring.

“I say the main thing was going from scout team to being a starter,” Nelson said. “Scout team, you’re probably only getting a few reps, but as a starter, you have to consistently make those plays, so that was probably the biggest thing.”

Nelson added he hoped to work on catching the ball and learn new techniques during these practices. He should be a more than adequate replacement for Sojourn Shelton, who started 51 of his 54 games at Wisconsin.

“As soon as he came in, we like clicked,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said about Nelson, “and I already knew what he was capable of, so what everybody is saying now really didn’t surprise me. I worked out with him all of the time he couldn’t play. He impressed me that whole entire time, so I was confident in him and I knew what he could do.”

Wisconsin CB Nick Nelson on goals, developing (B5Q/YouTube)

Cornerback Derrick Tindal

Opposite Nelson will be Tindal, barring injuries or other circumstances. During the spring, he showed his charisma on the field and backed it up by making plays. Head coach Paul Chryst even noted the Florida native “has had a tremendous spring.”

“Yeah mostly,” Tindal said, when asked if he got what he wanted out of the spring. “I felt like I became more of a leader to my group and to the team, which I wanted to do more. I wanted to dominate my position, and I felt like I did that.”

Nelson believes the two cornerbacks—and the secondary as a whole—feed off of each other.

“He makes a play, [it] motivates me” Nelson said. “I’m pretty sure if I made a play, it would motivate him. We feed off of each other—mostly all the DBs, we feed off of each other.”

With the dynamic duo and combination of D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson, this secondary could reload—not rebuild—in Leonhard’s second year as defensive backs coach.

“I feel like, athletic-wise,” Nelson said, “we’re there athletic-wise but we just got to get it mentally and we’ll probably be just as good as them.”

“We lost a lot of great players, well two great players in Sojourn and [free safety Leo] Musso,” Tindal said, “but I feel like the two we got—they are great athletes—and I definitely feel like we can be better.”

Wisconsin CB Derrick Tindal on 2017 secondary (B5Q/YouTube)

Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs

Jacobs has been selfless throughout his Wisconsin career, moving from outside linebacker to inside, then to fullback after the emergence of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, then back to inside linebacker last season—and now finally, back to the position he started off at.

It’s been a long journey, but Jacobs appears to be growing more comfortable on the edge again—especially with the fact he’s worked opposite Garret Dooley at the other outside linebacker position.

Those two, along with redshirt sophomore Zack Baun and redshirt junior Andrew Van Ginkel—may have put themselves into good position to fight for playing time next season.

“He did, and even though he probably got 15, 20 reps tonight in the practice component of it, and he showed up a lot in that,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Friday when asked if Jacobs showed enough during the spring.

If Jacobs can improve his pass rush—something outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar mentioned to the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway in a story published last week—his final season as a Badger could be memorable.

“I'm excited for Leon and about Leon,” Chryst continued. “There's a guy that would do anything for this team, and he did it. Last year at this time, he was playing fullback, and then he jumped in and had injuries and was playing inside backer. But I think the outside is a really good fit for him, and I thought what he did and ‘Tibs’ did—we had talked about this. Leon came to me right when we came back from the bowl game, and I think he's a guy that is capable of having a really big impact on this team. I'm excited for him to have that senior year that you're playing your best football. He works. He's talented. I think he'll be really a big part of what we do defensively.”

Notes

Outside linebacker Garret Dooley: Chryst mentioned earlier this spring that Dooley was practicing like a senior. His presence will be needed this summer, and he consistently worked with the first-team defense in team and position drills.

[Writer’s note: It appears I wrote much more on the projected offensive starters compared to the defensive players. With some of the defense resting (defensive line) or injured (inside linebacker), it was harder to note. Check out Monday’s feature on which players stepped up and made the most of their opportunities.]