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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s safeties in 2019

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Big things coming for the secondary?

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Like their cornerbacks, the Wisconsin Badgers should be in good hands with their safeties coming into the 2019 season. This position group may not be as deep on paper compared to Jim Leonhard’s corners, but there is talent.

D’Cota Dixon and Evan Bondoc exhausted their eligibility following their final season at UW, but Wisconsin has at least three safeties with game experience from 2018. Injuries to Dixon and Scott Nelson may have hurt the defense overall in terms of having various starters on the field, but it also gave an opportunity for Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson to find some playing time as well.

Throw in a Houston transfer and a couple others, and this could become a more-than-solid unit for the Wisconsin defense.

2018 statistical leaders

  • Redshirt senior D’Cota Dixon: 43 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three pass break-ups in nine games (all starts)
  • Redshirt sophomore Eric Burrell: 42 tackles, one interception, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, three quarterback hurries in 13 games
  • Redshirt freshman Scott Nelson: 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception, six pass break-ups, one forced fumble in nine games
  • Redshirt senior Evan Bondoc: Two interceptions in 13 games

Expectation No. 1: Depth will shine with more competition

To be fair, 2018 was a year of transition at safety, even with Dixon back because of his injuries.

Even with the losses of Dixon and Bondoc, Wisconsin’s safeties received plenty of game action due to injuries that will likely bode well for their development. That should help ease the adjustment period with Dixon, one of the generals for the Badgers’ defense for the past three years, now gone. It should also, like the cornerbacks, allow for more competition for reps with having that experience on the field for meaningful snaps. [insert Macho Man man “Cream Rises to the Top” gif here].

For the most part, Nelson showed flashes of what could be sustained potential in the defensive backfield down the road. He played in just nine of the 13 games this season due to injury with eight starts. He still proceeded to record those 41 tackles, 3.5 for loss, along with grabbing one interception and breaking up six passes. More about him in the next expectation.

With Dixon hurt, Eric Burrell assumed a starting role in six games but played in all 13. A heavy hitter in the secondary, he recorded 42 tackles, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and also picked off a Malik Rosier pass on Miami’s first offensive play of the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl.

Then there’s also rising second-year player Reggie Pearson who kept his redshirt in 2018 after only playing in four games. That included a start in his home state against Michigan and made five tackles, one for loss plus a forced fumble in the loss against the Wolverines in October.

It should bear watching how Houston transfer Collin Wilder figures into the mix in 2019, as he sat last season due to NCAA rules. There is also rising redshirt junior Seth Currens who played in all 13 games last season as well.

Heck, how incoming freshman Titus Toler fares once he gets to campus in the summer and into fall camp will be something B5Q looks at once August hits. Flipping from Colorado, Toler became a late addition to the 2019 class from California powerhouse St. John Bosco.

Owen Riese and I spoke about the depth in the secondary at both cornerback and safety on this week’s episode of Bucky’s 5th Podcast.

Expectation No. 2: Scott Nelson continuing his progression as a standout safety

You saw the tackle for loss against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl, plus the interception early in the season against New Mexico.

In my opinion, there is a ball-hawking safety in the DNA of Nelson. We saw it in fall camp when he hauled in some interceptions. With the previous mentioned six pass break-ups, he has shown the ability to patrol the defensive backfield as well. He has that ability to make key tackles, but the injuries robbed him of gaining more footing in his first year as a starter.

If he stays healthy, his third year in Madison could be special. Like Burrell at times in the open field, I felt like Nelson may have missed some tackles last season that they both would like back, and those two should have that opportunity during the 2019 season.

Another intangible will likely be the leadership of Nelson in guiding this position group. For that matter, both Burrell and Nelson studied under the tutelage of Dixon, as I remember them staying back with him after some practices last year.

Now both have the ability to carry on the tradition of recent successful Wisconsin safeties, a mantle that has been passed from Mike Caputo to Leo Musso to Natrell Jamerson to Dixon and now this next set of Badgers.