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Wisconsin football recruiting since 1990: top class of safeties

Our position-by-position look at the best group of players signed in a single class in recent Wisconsin football history looks at the safety position.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Minnesota at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers football program has seen an amazing wave of success since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990. His tenure in the athletic department shifted perception of Wisconsin athletics and paved the way for current success.

While the landscape of college football has significantly change since 1990, the lifeblood of winning hasn’t.

Recruiting and development are king.

The Badgers have seen tremendous results in developing talent since Alvarez took the reins and laid the blueprint, but recruiting has had areas of prosperity such as offensive line, running back, and linebacker. On the flipside, however, there have also been pockets of the roster that have been more challenging to recruit for.

Within each position though there has been moments of realized potential that create a source of strength on the roster based on the fruits of a singular recruiting class.

For example, in the 2021 recruiting class the Badgers currently have two four-star offensive lineman, and are heavily involved with five-star offensive lineman Nolan Rucci as well. If all three prospects were to sign with Wisconsin that could potentially be a major moment in the trajectory of the position, and ultimately alter the complexion of the offense as a whole.

With that as a launching off point, I began to wonder which classes in the past 30 years had the best collection of players in a singular position group.

In the second episode of the series we look into the top class of safeties.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Top class: 2014 recruiting class

2014 Recruiting Class: Safety

Name Position Freshman Height/Weight Hometown Notable Statistics
Name Position Freshman Height/Weight Hometown Notable Statistics
D'Cota Dixon Safety 5-foot-10 / 179 pounds New Smyrna Beach, Florida 51 games played, 179 tackles, five interceptions, 3 forced fumbles
Lubern Figaro Safety 6-foot / 180 pounds Everett, Massachusettes 50 games played, 59 tackles, one interception, nine pass breakups
Austin Hudson Safety 6-foot-2 / 190 pounds Tampa, Florida Transferred from Wisconsin to USF, and ultimately to Oregon State
Natrell Jamerson Wide receiver turned safety 6-foot / 170 pounds Ocala, Florida 47 games played, 88 tackles, two interceptions, one kickoff return for a touchdown

All four players that the Badgers signed in the 2014 recruiting class were three-star prospects coming out of high school. Austin Hudson didn’t stay long before jumping around in the transfer portal, and Natrell Jamerson only spent one season as a safety, but that doesn’t diminish the impact that this group had in the secondary while at Wisconsin.

The trio of Jamerson, D’Cota Dixon, and Lubern Figaro played a combined 148 games for the Badgers during their careers, and were key fixtures to some great defenses, most notably the stellar 2017 season with Dixon and Jamerson pairing together at safety.

D’Cota Dixon, though often injured, was a huge contributor for multiple seasons with the Badgers. A vocal leader, Dixon was the College Man of the Year Award recipient in 2018, and was an three-time All-Big Ten performer from 2016-2018 with 32 starts, 177 tackles, three forced fumbles, and five interceptions.

Dixon’s interception as a sophomore to seal a win in Lambeau Field against LSU will forever be a quintessential moment in his career, which was endearing both on and off the field.

Jamerson and Figaro had opposing career arcs while in Madison.

Figaro came in and started seven games immediately as a true freshman at safety. The Massachusetts native drew the praise and trust of the coaches early, and he had a nice interception and return against Bowling Green early in the season. However, Figaro would never seem to settle in from there.

Figaro went on to become a valuable reserve for the Badgers for the final three seasons of his career at both safety and cornerback. He ended his career with 59 tackles, nine pass breakups, and the one interception.

On the flip side, Natrell Jamerson came into Wisconsin as a wide receiver. He would later switch over to the defensive side of the ball and play nickel cornerback, before eventually landing at free safety his senior season.

Jamerson was also a particularly strong kickoff returner, with a touchdowns against Maryland that completely changed the complexion of that game.

He earned honorable mention all-conference honors his senior season, and finished his career with 88 tackles, 14 pass breakups, and two interceptions.

Overall the group was part of one of the best defenses in program history in 2017, and were the winningest senior class in program history with a 45-10 record.

Both D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson are currently on active NFL rosters, Dixon with the Buccaneers and Jamerson with the Panthers.

Having two future NFL prospects come in together in the same recruiting class, and the overall success of the defenses they played on, elevated the status of this group to the top spot.

Jim Leonhard caries the ball Photo by Danny Moloshok/Getty Images

Second Best (by technicality): 2001 class

The 2001 recruiting class makes this list as well, and has some real argument for the No. 1 spot.

Robert Brooks (a top-100 recruit according to Tom Lemming) was the only scholarship safety signed in the recruiting class, but it was the work of walk-on Jim Leonhard that makes this class dynamic. Leonhard is one of the best players to ever wear a Wisconsin uniform, but the fact that he was a walk-on makes this a bit contentious.

Leonhard has the best resume of any safety in program history with 21 interceptions, and three first team All-Big Ten honors to go along with three national All-American honors during his career as a safety. Also a standout punt returner, Leonhard is widely considered one of the best Badgers ever.

Add on his great 10 year career in the NFL, and he is a no doubt difference maker in an exercise like this.

His running mate, Brooks, also contributed throughout his career with over 40 games played, but is best known for his hit on Kyle Orton against Purdue that resulted in a Scott Starks touchdown that forever stings for the Boilermakers.

Arguments can be made for either the 2014 or 2001 class to get the top spot in my eyes, but if Leonhard had been a scholarship recruit this is probably not even a discussion, for me at least. Given that this series is predicated on recruiting classes I will defer to the 2014 class, but 2001 had way more star power, albeit it from a walk-on from Tony, Wisconsin.

Jeff Messenger

Honorable Mention: 1990 recruiting class

Jeff Messenger, Mel Tucker, Jamel Brown from the 1990 class gets the nod of honorable mention. Both Tucker and Messenger bounced between safety and cornerback during their playing careers, but Messenger’s two-time first-team All-Big Ten career is a big reason for this groups resume.

A fan favorite player from the early Alvarez years, Messenger was a huge recruit for Barry to land from within the state. Tucker missed the 1993 Rose Bowl season due to injury, but he made some significant plays during his career such as his game preserving hit on the road against Minnesota.

The 1990 class is potentially the most important class in the history of Wisconsin athletics, and the safety group was a pretty solid. Scott Nelson came onto the team in ‘89, if he would have came in with this group, that potentially would have done enough to push this group to the top of the heap as well.