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Wisconsin football 2020 review/2021 preview: safeties

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Next up in our off-season series that looks back at 2020 and peeks ahead to 2021, we turn our attention to the safety position.

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

2020 starters

  • Free safety: Eric Burrell (RS Senior)
  • Strong safety: Scott Nelson (RS Junior) and Collin Wilder (RS Senior)
Wisconsin v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

2020 statistics

  • Eric Burrell was No. 5 on the team in total tackles with 23, including two tackles for a loss as well as one interception and two pass breakups in seven games played.
  • Scott Nelson was No. 6 on the team in total tackles with 22, including four tackles for a loss as well as a team-high two interceptions, one sack, and two pass breakups while appearing in six games.
  • Collin Wilder was No. 3 on the team in total tackles with 30, including one tackle for a loss as well as one interception and two pass breakups in seven games.
  • Tyler Mais recorded five tackles in seven games, primarily in special teams.
  • Travian Blaylock had four special teams tackles in seven games played.
  • John Torchio registered four tackles and a tackle for loss while appearing in five games as a reserve.
  • Titus Toler only played in two games but had his first career interception against Michigan.

2020 season review

Eric Burrell headlined a really strong group of returning safeties for the Badgers in 2020. The last minute announcement before fall camp that starting strong safety Reggie Pearson was not medically cleared to participate was a pretty significant blow to the defense, but Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder played well in his place.

Burrell did not have as statistically impressive of a year as many may have envisioned entering the season, but the senior leader stepped up big with an interception in the Minnesota game and did a great job as the last line of defense from his free safety spot.

Scott Nelson was arguably the most improved player on the entire team after battling consistency issues as a redshirt freshman and then missing the entirety of the 2019 season due to a knee injury. Nelson led the team in interceptions and was a sure tackler. Nelson did not play in the season opening win over Illinois, but he seemed to get stronger as the season progressed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The other major contributor at the safety position was Collin Wilder. The former Houston transfer did a great job in run support and looked to play more confident in Jim Leonhard’s scheme in his second season of playing time. Wilder also had a big interception in the bowl game against Wake Forest that he nearly took back for a pick-six.

Reserve safeties John Torchio, Travian Blaylock and Tyler Mais each helped out in special teams, while Titus Toler made it in the two-deep to start the season and had a nice interception against Michigan before he went down with an injury that forced him to miss the remainder of the season.

2021 season preview

Looking forward to 2021, the major question mark will be the status of Reggie Pearson.

His father hinted that he is on the comeback trail in a Tweet, and that would represent significant news for the secondary. The hard hitting strong safety would be tough to keep out of the starting lineup given his ability level. If Pearson is back expect him to have a big hand in how successful the defensive backfield is in 2021.

Nelson had a nice bounce back season in 2020 and he could be poised to assume Burrell’s role at free safety next season. Expect him to take on a greater leadership role in the defense in his final season in Madison, as he is a very vocal player on the field and plays with a ton of energy.

Wilder will once again be a key player at the safety position in 2021 as well, regardless of if Pearson comes back or not. Wilder is an experienced strong safety that should provide another good play-maker for Jim Leonhard to use as a starter, rotationally, or in three safety looks.

Behind those three main players some younger scholarship players like Toler and incoming 4-star freshmen Hunter Wohler (Muskego) and Braelon Allen (Fond du Lac) are a trio of safeties to keep an eye on, as they are heralded recruits that are the future of the position in the coming seasons. With so much experience returning — especially if Pearson is back — there might not be tons of playing time available for those younger player on the roster outside of special teams.