With the start of Wisconsin Football’s fall camp rapidly approaching, Badger of Honor takes a closer look at what fans should watch out for this season at safety.
Pre-Fall Camp Projected Depth Chart
1. Eric Burrell – RS JR
2. Reggie Pearson – RS FR
1. Scott Nelson – RS SO
2. Collin Wilder – RS JR
Others in the mix: Titus Toler (FR), Tyler Mais (RS SO), John Torchio (RS FR)
What to watch for
D’Cota Dixon was the heart and soul of Wisconsin’s secondary over the last few seasons, and losing him to graduation certainly stings. That being said, I’m feeling very confident about the group that the Badgers are returning at safety in 2019.
The two-deep at both safety spots looks to already be set in stone heading into fall camp, and it’s a pretty solid quartet. Scott Nelson and Eric Burrell will most likely be Jim Leonhard’s opening night starters against South Florida on August 30, with Reggie Pearson and Collin Wilder serving as the primary reserves.
Burrell had a coming-out party of sorts last season after serving as a little-used reserve in 2017. He played in all 13 games with six starts after Dixon went down due to injury, racking up 42 tackles (24 solo), one interception, two pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. Burrell’s best performance of the year probably came in Wisconsin’s blowout loss against Michigan, when he made a career-high 11 tackles against the Wolverines.
His presumed partner in crime at free safety, Nelson, also turned in a relatively encouraging season as a redshirt freshman starter in 2018. There were definitely ups and downs (particularly some tackling struggles that plagued him throughout the campaign), but he also was not playing at 100 percent for much of the year and ultimately missed four games due to injury.
Regardless, in the nine games (eight starts) in which he played, Nelson’s performance was still relatively impressive: he made 41 tackles (22 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one interception, and six pass breakups. Assuming he’s back to full health at the start of the season, I would expect a great deal of growth from him in 2019. Fans should be sure to keep an eye on how healthy Nelson appears throughout fall camp, as he will be counted on to play a crucial role as Wisconsin’s safety valve over the top once again this season.
Though I would consider him the third option at safety behind Burrell and Nelson at the moment, I think Pearson would be starting on many other Power 5 teams across the country.
Though he appeared in just four games and redshirted in 2018, he flashed big-time potential in limited action, particularly in Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan. Pearson was thrown to the wolves in his first starting nod against the Wolverines in the Big House last October, which was as intense and high-pressure an environment as any that the Badgers played in, and he performed admirably. Even if he doesn’t start a game this season, Pearson is one of the most exciting young talents on the roster and is poised for a ton of playing time as the primary reserve at safety.
We will also finally get a glimpse of Wilder this season, as he had to sit out last year due to NCAA rules after transferring from Houston. The coaching staff has been high on this kid ever since his high school days when the Badgers recruited him out of Katy, Texas, and Wisconsin fans should know by now to trust the staff’s recruiting evaluations in most cases. It looks like we can probably pencil him into the two-deep comfortably after a solid spring, but he will need to keep the momentum going in fall camp in order to stave off a very talented true freshman in Titus Toler.
Indeed, though I think it’s unlikely given that he did not enroll early, it wouldn’t necessarily shock me to see Toler snag Wilder’s spot on the depth chart during preseason practices.
The 3-star from California was a big-time get for the Badgers on the recruiting trail and looks to have a very bright future ahead of him in Madison. As with most freshmen, I’m sure the coaching staff would love to limit his action to four games and preserve his redshirt, but it’s definitely possible that he could be forced into major action in the event of an injury or poor play by any one of four players most likely to open the season on the two-deep at safety.
Aside from the aforementioned five players, the only other players listed as safeties on Wisconsin’s current roster are walk-ons John Torchio and Tyler Mais. While neither have seen the field so far in their young careers and aren’t likely to see much, if any, action on anything other than special teams this season, both turned down scholarship opportunities to play for the Badgers. Torchio, in particular, was a fantastic get, turning down offers from California, Air Force, Army, Rice, and San Jose State, among others, to walk on at Wisconsin. If the safety room gets hit hard by injuries, you could do a lot worse than these two as your sixth and seventh players in the pecking order.
All stats courtesy of UWBadgers.com