Badgers football: Wisconsin coaches, players hype cornerback Nick Nelson as potential star
Those within the University of Wisconsin football program aren’t shying away from hyping Nick Nelson’s debut season.
Inside linebacker Chris Orr calls Nelson a beast and lauded the cornerback for his “astonishing plays.” Fellow corner Dontye Carriere-Williams simply refers to Nelson as a “dawg” — someone who gets the job done and does it well. Talk to any UW coach or player about the Hawaii transfer and they’ll likely use the word “special” at least once during the conversation.
“He makes receivers play up to his level or he’s going to embarrass them,” UW defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said. “I’m excited to watch him play because he’s ready. He’s ready for that moment, and he’s ready to go challenge everybody.”
Nelson sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, and it’s a perfect time for him to become eligible after the departure of four-year starter Sojourn Shelton.
While those shoes aren’t easy ones to fill, the Badgers clearly believe Nelson’s more than capable.
“People are going to be shocked this year,” Orr said. “There’s not going to be a drop off at all in the secondary. I’m excited about the season to see what he’s going to do.”
Nelson, a redshirt junior this year, started 21 games in his two seasons at Hawaii, including a 2015 loss at Camp Randall Stadium against the Badgers. His 15 pass breakups that season were the eighth-most in the NCAA.
When he arrived in Madison last year, Leonhard didn’t need to spend much time teaching him proper technique. Nelson was already a polished player and spent the 2016 season locked in on the practice field with the hope of taking his game to the next level.
Nelson’s speed and quickness help him stay with receivers, and his 5-foot-11, 208-pound frame is big enough to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a big kid … but he can run,” Leonhard said. “He poses a little different challenge when he puts his hands on guys and goes up there and presses. It’s fun to watch him work.
“He did a lot of things naturally that you’ve got to spend a lot of time coaching. His natural body positions and naturally his instincts on how he moves and where his eyes go on certain things, you can either find a guy who has that naturally or you spend a lot of time on it. He just has that knack for getting in the right body positions and challenging receivers and getting to the top shoulder and different things like that.”
Nelson’s also a serious candidate to replace wide receiver Jazz Peavy as the Badgers’ primary punt returner this season, a title Nelson held at Hawaii in 2015.
Leonhard said Nelson could be special with the ball in his hands. Most importantly, though, he said Nelson catches the ball naturally. UW lost field position on a number of occasions last season when allowing the ball to hit the ground and roll for extra yardage.
“You’ve got to catch it to give the offense a chance … so that’s the main thing with punt returns,” Nelson said. “Catch the ball first and just get to your blocking, get to your wall, make a play. That’s it.”
Success on punt returns would only be an added bonus of this transfer, though. Nelson’s coverage skills have the Badgers enthusiastic about seeing him partner with Derrick Tindal, who enjoyed a breakout season last year.
Next week’s game against Utah State will be Nelson’s first for a Power Five conference program, but fulfilling the potential he’s shown in practice could make him an instant star for UW.
“Honestly, I think the ceiling is very, very high,” Leonhard said. “Every day he goes out there, the confidence continues to rise and rise.”