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Expectations meet mindset for Nick Nelson to be a lockdown corner, and maybe more
August 20, 2017
6:37 pm
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College BattleGround
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MADISON—The hype is real for cornerback Nick Nelson.

During the first two weeks of fall camp, the transfer from Hawaii showcased his abilities against Wisconsin’s passing game. Whether it’s a pass break-up during team drills or an interception near the sidelines—such as the one he recorded on Aug. 12 during the last camp practice open to reporters—there have been recurring flashes of Nelson’s skill set that could lead to an all-conference season in his first year in the Big Ten.

“He just makes plays, he makes some astonishing plays,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Orr said on Thursday. “I think he caught a one-handed pick in traffic on a dig, and that was one of the best interceptions I’ve seen in my career, so he’s going to make some splash plays.”

Nelson’s emergence as a potential lockdown cornerback in tandem with senior Derrick Tindal will be an intriguing storyline to watch in 2017 for a secondary losing key starters in cornerback Sojourn Shelton and free safety Leo Musso.

The production seen from Nelson as a Badger has been limited to non-game experience after transferring last season, but there is a lot to like about what the 5’11, 204-pound redshirt junior brings to the defense.

After the April 21 spring game, redshirt quarterback Alex Hornibrook gushed about Nelson, who he has had to face often in practices over the past two seasons.

“I played against him everyday last year when we were running our offense and he was on scout team because he couldn’t play. He would be jumping routes,” Hornibrook said. “I just thought it was because he knew what route they were running, but he’s still doing it right now and it’s not because what route they were running. It’s because of his anticipation and just his natural ball skills.

“He’s a great corner and I can’t wait to watch him play this fall.”

It’s not like Nelson came out of nowhere, though. He played in 23 games (21 starts) over two seasons at Hawaii. Against Wisconsin on Sept. 26, 2015, Nelson recorded nine tackles and a pass break-up. That season, he registered 53 tackles and 15 pass break-ups.

“Honestly, I think the ceiling is very, very high, because just you see him everyday he goes out there, just the confidence continues to rise and rise,” defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said on Aug. 12. “He came in very good technically. He did a lot of things naturally that you got to spend a lot of time coaching, and in just over a year, you can just see how locked in he is everyday.”

“His mentality—he makes receivers play up to his level or he’s going to embarrass them,” Leonhard said. “That’s kind of his mentality, which is awesome for a corner. He works on the little subtleties of his game. It’s not just going in and putting in a day ever, which is fun. I’m excited to watch him play because he’s ready.”

When asked on Thursday about Leonhard’s comments, Nelson expressed that mentality once again.

“I feel like we got to raise the bar. We’re just competing,” he said. “I feel like I got to get them better, and they got to get me better, so we’re just competing.”

There is competition every practice between Wisconsin’s defensive backs and its wide receivers. Lining up across the line of scrimmage from them in fall camp, Nelson likes what he sees from wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore’s group.

“They mix it up,” Nelson said. “We watch film together. Say, I make a play on them, on this, I’ll be like, ‘You should have stacked me more,’ and that’s what’s helped us. And they’ve gotten way better, so it’s like every day you got to bring it.”

Another intriguing factor for Nelson could be on special teams. During practices open to the media, the cornerback fielded punts along with wide receivers Jazz Peavy, Kendric Pryor, Jack Dunn, Danny Davis, and Cade Green. Peavy, who missed some time in camp due to a left leg injury, returned 17 kicks in 2016 for under six yards per attempt. Nelson averaged 7.4 yards per punt return in 19 attempts in 2015 for Hawaii.

Leonhard knows a thing or two about this phase of the game as well. He still holds the UW record for most career punt return yards (1,347) and most career returns (105) from his All-American days in Madison. In the NFL, he averaged 9.2 yards per punt return on 108 attempts. Eleven of those went beyond 20 yards.

“Very natural catching the ball, which is always the first thing, obviously, and I think he could be special with the ball in his hands,” Leonhard said. “He’s got obviously a lot of skill, so looking forward to it. But I think the number one thing is you just see he’s got a lot of comfort in being back there and catching it, and I don’t think he’s going to panic when guys get close to him and I’m excited what he can do this season.”

There are other players competing for that spot, but Leonhard believes the team has options at punt returner, something he said the Badgers may not have had many of in recent years.

Knowing Nelson’s mindset of playing cornerback, what’s his mentality of being a punt returner?

“Catch the ball first,” Nelson said with a laugh. “Catch the ball first and just get to your block and get to your wall and make a play. That’s it.”

Nelson has not yet stepped foot on the Camp Randall Stadium turf for a game-time snap, but his potential for success is undeniable. After his performance in fall camp practices open to the media, he might just be the worst-kept secret on the Wisconsin roster.

“Nick a beast. People are going to be shocked this year,” Orr said. “There’s not going to be a drop off at all in the secondary. It’ll be nice. I’m excited about the season to see what he’s going to do. It’s going to be fun.”

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