Right before a February conditioning session, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst approached walk-on safety Collin Wilder. At first the Houston transfer, who took a chance on coming to UW and paying his way to play football, thought nothing about it.
Next thing you know, he found out he is on scholarship.
“We were about to do a running workout, and coach Chryst just came up to me and said, ‘Come see me in my office after this,’” Wilder told B5Q on Friday after Wisconsin’s last practice. “I thought he’d just wanted to check on me or something like that. Then he just said, ‘Actually, you know what, just go up there and sign your scholarship papers.’ That’s all he said.”
Needless to say, the defensive back was pumped.
“After that, I was ready to workout. I was juiced up and ready to go, so it was one of the best days of my life so far,” Wilder said on Friday. “I’m so thankful for it.”
A year and three days prior to Wisconsin’s final spring practice on April 26, Wilder announced his intentions to transfer to Wisconsin from Houston. Now with spring practices finished and fall camp looming months from now, it appears Wilder has not only earned a scholarship but also positioned himself to be in heavy consideration for Wisconsin’s two-deep at the safety position.
With Eric Burrell and Scott Nelson assuming duties as the top duo with the first-team defense in the spring practices open to the media, Wilder and sophomore Reggie Pearson have shown potential in the past month of being more-than-viable contributors when called upon.
“He’s a very physical player. Very smart, instinctual player,” Nelson said on April 13 after Wisconsin’s open practice. “We were just talking, he’s a gamer. He doesn’t love drills and stuff like that, but he just likes playing football. I’ve gotten really close with him over this past winter, kind of being around him, working out with him more.”
The culture of the program established by Chryst and nurtured by defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jim Leonhard “grabbed” Wilder, along with the ability to develop as a player.
“As soon as I met with coach Chryst and coach Leonhard, I knew that they were taking a chance on me,” Wilder said, “but knowing that I didn’t have a scholarship offer, I was also taking a chance on myself.”
According to the Katy, Tex., native, his biggest objective was to earn trust from Leonhard and the players on the field. Though that seems to have been achieved overall, he was not necessarily pleased with his play during the final spring practice.
“I wanted to earn trust and I wanted to show them that I’m willing to lay my body on the line no matter what, and I think I showed that,” Wilder said. “I think I earned a lot of trust. I never had a perfect day though, and that was what I was trying to shoot for and I never did. Especially today, I didn’t have a perfect day. The biggest thing coming out of this [is] I really hope that these guys can trust me if my number is called or whenever my number is called.”
Wilder played in 15 games in two years during his time at Houston before deciding to move on from the Cougars program. In his sophomore campaign in 2017, he saw action in just two games due to a season-ending knee injury. NCAA transfer rules forced Wilder to sit during the 2018 season, though being on the sideline allowed him to take some self-examination.
“Sitting out was tough, but it really helped me figure out who I was without football,” Wilder said. “That made everything worth it, and I’m very grateful for that. I’m hoping I can get a year back because I’ve only played one year of college football so far. Hopefully I can get a sixth year out of it, but I’m enjoying every bit of it.”
For Wilder, learning his job at safety was not an issue. However, he noted that meeting with Leonhard while he sat last season helped him become more comfortable with the system—making checks quicker, knowing formations and understanding what he could do within the playbook on particular reads—and play faster on the field.
Wilder mentioned that he spoke with Burrell, Nelson and Pearson at the beginning of the spring about how he was excited to be a part of the safety room. He also acknowledged it is a “very competitive group.”
“I think we have a lot of depth,” Wilder said. “I think we can rely on all four of us. Whoever’s out on that field, I think we can rely that we will make plays. It’s a competitive group, and it helps us get better each and every day.”
Burrell echoed similar sentiments back after Wisconsin’s open practice on April 13.
“We’re just all competing,” Burrell said. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re first string, second string. I think everybody's just going out there, having fun. I’m excited what we can bring to the table. A lot of people are going to be doubting us, but I’m excited and I’m just ready to work.”
Fall camp starts months from now, but Wilder mentioned the first goal between now and then is for guys to recover from “some bumps and bruises,” but also to hone in on what he described as “the little things.”
“Like I need to work on my pass rush, and that’s what I’m going to work on,” Wilder said. “Obviously, the workout, staying in shape and all that, but we all have our things that we’re going to work on, and we’re going to be ready come fall camp.”
Wilder believes that the competition within the secondary—both cornerbacks and safeties—can help make the group a strength of the defense.
“I think a lot of guys have gotten experience from last year and I can tell, especially with the corners, they’re playing a lot faster, playing a lot more confident and that’s something that I think will go a long [way] for us,” Wilder said. “Obviously the safeties, Eric and Scott, got a lot of game experience last year. Reggie even gotten some. Then with me having some experience at Houston, I think we all have some sort of experience on the field, and I think that will come and pay off.
“We’ll take it to a whole another level. That’s the plan—take it to the whole another level from last year.”
Wilder has now been on both sides of the coin in being a scholarship player at Houston and Wisconsin while also experiencing student-athlete life as a walk-on with the Badgers. He admitted the feeling of receiving the scholarship “was very surreal,” and there was perspective gained early in his time as a Badger.
“It makes you appreciate a lot of things, a lot of little things that you don’t appreciate when you get school paid for automatically,” Wilder said. “I can’t thank my parents enough. They paid for my school for this semester, and I promised them that I would get on as soon as possible.
“I’m just very grateful for coach Chryst and coach Leonhard and his staff for trusting me. They’re investing a lot of money in me for a scholarship. I’m so thankful for that, and I told them I’d promise I wouldn’t let them down.”