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Who will be the breakout player for the Wisconsin Badgers on defense?

A certain transfer from Hawaii gets mentioned.

Cornerback Nick Nelson before Wisconsin’s spring game in April.
Cornerback Nick Nelson before Wisconsin’s spring game in April.
Patrick Barron

Owen Riese: Nick Nelson. I'm sure we've all read the reports online about his rave reviews this spring and now even rumblings about being a possible early entrant into the NFL Draft are kicking up. Let's see if the hype is real.

Dylan Deich: I’m 1,000 percent aboard the Leon Jacobs hype train. The Badgers’ 3-4 scheme and Jacobs’s freakish athleticism should be a perfect marriage. I think he’ll make it much easier to forget that T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel are no longer sporting the Motion W.

Mike Fiammetta: I’d love to offer a unique contribution here, but I gotta go Nelson. Wisconsin fans have been waiting to see what he’d bring to the Badgers’ secondary since his transfer, which feels like ages ago after he had to sit out last season. If Nelson’s able to exceed Sojourn Shelton’s performance at corner, UW’s defense could go from stout as ever to something truly next-level.

Ryan Mellenthin: Nick Nelson. Given Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury, I thought I would be picking from the group of linebackers that will be in the mix this year. With all of the injuries last season, we’ve all seen what they can do, which turns my attention to Nelson. The Hawaii transfer is receiving nothing by praise from all directions heading into 2017. Wisconsin’s 2016 defensive backfield of Shelton, Derrick Tindal, D’Cota Dixon, and Leo Musso was a solid bunch, but this year’s version with Nelson (and Natrell Jamerson) is supposed to exceed last year’s. One of the biggest knocks on Shelton throughout his college career was his size: 5’9, 168 pounds. Nelson is a “bigger” corner at 5’11, 208 pounds, giving him a 40-pound advantage over his predecessor and making it easier for him to match up against bigger receivers without giving up any of the speed required to excel at the position.

Neal Olson: Ho boy, not sure it’s worth going out on a limb to say anyone other than Nelson. Considering he is the least-known quantity of any Badger defenders, I think he is the most likely one to exceed expectations. However, the hype train is quickly generating such momentum that we are fast approaching “anything short of All-American and leading the country in interceptions is a disappointment” territory. I will couch this Nelson breakout talk with the presence of Tindal. “DT” has the ability to lock things down on one side of the secondary; as such, teams will have no choice but to test Nelson on the other side. If he responds to the challenge, the Badger defense will be formidable.

Jake Kocorowski: Going with Nelson for my pick because of everything everyone said above. Also, during fall camp, it seemed like nearly every single practice there’d be some pass break-up or play he’d make. I’m not just intrigued to see how offenses game-plan against him in the secondary, but also his prowess as a punt returner.

Alongside Jacobs, fellow redshirt senior Garret Dooley could have a huge 2017. Both he and Jacobs have locked down the starting outside linebacker spots for Tim Tibesar’s position group. Dooley filled in well for an injured Biegel last year and earned considerable reps in 2016. Trying to replace 15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss from both Biegel and Watt last year, however, it’s a need rather than a luxury to have him continue his progression and the precedent set by this group the past few seasons.