Just minutes into the 2019 season, safety Scott Nelson — then a redshirt sophomore — suffered a leg injury that would pull him out of Wisconsin’s week-one win over South Florida. A few days later, he announced on Twitter that his season was abruptly over.
Almost fifteen months later, Nelson finally made his return to the playing field.
A COVID-19 protocol held cornerback Rachad Wildgoose out of No. 13 Wisconsin’s (2-0) primetime game at Michigan (1-3) last Saturday, giving Nelson the opportunity to step into a nickel role alongside Faion Hicks, Collin Wilder, Caesar Williams and Eric Burrell in the Badgers’ secondary.
“You have to have confidence in yourself,” Nelson said postgame. “Everybody else will have confidence in you.”
It didn’t take long for Nelson, a Michigan native, to come up with a big play at the Big House. On Michigan’s first offensive snap, quarterback Joe Milton rolled to his right and threw into traffic. Burrell deflected the pass up into the air, where a diving Nelson was there to corral the ball and come down with Wisconsin’s first interception of the evening.
“[Burrell] got his hand in there and the ball kind of just popped out,” Nelson said of the first-quarter turnover. “Good things happen when you’re around the ball. I was in a good position where I could make a play.”
The Wisconsin offense took advantage of the short field position with a four-play, 33-yard scoring drive to open up a 7-0 lead that would grow much larger before the evening ended.
Nelson’s interception was the type of instigator that the Wisconsin coaching staff had been pushing for all week leading up to the game.
“Coach Leonhard was preaching about playing big early, setting the tone and just kind of keeping it rolling from there,” Nelson said.
The Badgers’ defense kept it rolling on the following possession — this time a horrendous interception from Milton right into the chest of UW linebacker Leo Chenal — which set the Badgers up for a 14-0 lead just over nine minutes into the game.
“That’s what we’re working for is three-and-outs, is turnovers,” Chenal said postgame. “They’re a really talented team, and I think our defense — our whole team — just came well prepared physically and mentally.”
Chenal, a sophomore, has stepped into a bigger role at linebacker this season due to former team captain Chris Orr’s graduation to the National Football League. Nelson acknowledged the culture Orr instituted in his time at Wisconsin and credited the defense for staying focused among various personnel changes.
“I give a lot of credit to Chris Orr, he and [Zack] Baun set the tone a lot,” Nelson said. “That kind of mindset carries over. We’re still trying to fit in, figure out what kind of positions each player is going to be in … I think Coach Leonhard’s scheme is doing a great job of working with all of the guys.”
In a week that was characterized by uncertainty and concerns about eligibility and player safety, the Wisconsin defense didn’t seem to miss a beat.
By the final whistle of Wisconsin’s 48-11 blowout victory, the Badgers had held Michigan’s offense to just 219 total yards and a paltry 10 first downs. Nelson tied for the team lead with five tackles to go with his interception and one tackle-for-loss.
“We just have a next guy up mentality,” Nelson said regarding his opportunity to start Saturday. “We miss those guys tremendously, just the energy they bring — we miss having them there. It will be great to have everybody back.”
How Nelson fits into Leonhard’s plans for the defense going forward is unknown. Because Wisconsin Athletics does not release private health information about players, Wildgoose’s eligibility to play next Saturday at No. 19 Northwestern (4-0) is purely speculative as of Wednesday. Only time will tell.
Regardless, shaking off the rust after more than a year away from the field must have been quite the relief. A big stat-padding performance only made it that much sweeter for the junior safety.
“It was anything I could dream of,” Nelson said. “It was great to get back into the swing of things, make some plays, and just get back out there with the guys.”