MADISON, Wis. – It’s any easy comparison to make, but in a sense comparing the situation facing Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson to what former UW offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk faced last year is both fair and unfair.
True, both Nelson and Ramczyk had to sit out a season after transferring to the Badgers. Ramczyk sat out in 2015 after taking the step up from Division III football at UW-Stevens Point, and Nelson sat out in 2016 after transferring to Wisconsin from Hawaii.
Both players were named as starters at their respective positions early in spring camp, too, and Nelson has a chance to bring the same stability to Wisconsin’s defensive backfield in replacing Sojourn Shelton that Ramczyk gave the Badgers last year in stepping in at left tackle.
The comparison ends there, though, in part because it’s unfair to expect Nelson to have the same kind of season that Ramczyk had for the Badgers in his first (and ultimately only) season on the field for UW, now that he’s off to the NFL as a likely first-round draft pick.
But Nelson has something that Ramczyk didn’t have last year – two full years’ worth of playing experience at the Division I level at Hawaii, not to mention a game at Camp Randall Stadium already under his belt. Nelson started Hawaii’s game at Wisconsin on Sept. 26, 2015 – the Rainbow Warriors lost 28-0, but Nelson recorded eight tackles, including half of a tackle for loss, and had a pass breakup in the game.
And while Nelson didn’t know at the time that he’d wind up transferring to Wisconsin as the Rainbow Warriors arrived in town for the game, he left the stadium with a feeling that Madison could be the right fit for him.
“Really I wanted to be a lot closer to home, cause at Hawaii I only got to go home two times a year,” Nelson, a native of Forestville, Md., said after Wisconsin’s second practice of spring camp. “I just wanted to play at a big school, and do what I did at Hawaii there.”
“From playing here (in 2015), I liked it a lot,” Nelson said. “I liked it more than when we played Ohio State – the fans were loud. Coming from Hawaii, we get to explore. We got here on Thursday and coach let us go to certain restaurants and I liked it. I knew this was the place I wanted to be right then.”
Nelson said he sent his release out to every team in the Big Ten once Hawaii granted it to him, and was glad that the Badgers reciprocated his interest and decided to recruit him. He enrolled at Wisconsin in the summer of 2016, and said that his redshirt year was a humbling experience as he put in time on Wisconsin’s defensive scout team, waiting for his chance to get back on the field.
His teammates took notice, including Derrick Tindal - his new partner at cornerback in the defensive backfield. Tindal gave Nelson an enthusiastic vote of confidence after practice on Thursday, and said that having Nelson taking over for Sojourn Shelton means he doesn’t have to worry about what’s going on across the field.
“When he came in he didn’t let him not playing last season affect him,” Tindal said. “He was out there hustling, flying around, making plays all year. That’s why (when) I look at him, I know what type of player he is, what he can do.”
“I’m pretty happy with Natrell moving to safety and (Nelson) stepping in to Sojourn’s role, I feel like (last year) cause when I had Sojourn over there last year I’d look over and be like ‘Ah yeah, that’s Sojourn. He’s got it.’ So now I can still feel comfortable – I can look over there and not be worried and be like ‘Oh shoot, what he’s going to do over there?’ Now I can be like ‘Ah, that’s Nick. He’s got it.’”
Tindal said Nelson already has a great feel for the technique the Badgers play at the position, particularly off the ball, where Tindal said that Nelson has a knack for jumping routes.
“Honestly, he’s got one of the best off-coverages that I’ve ever seen from a DB,” Tindal said of Nelson. “Playing with him, when we do press he comes and asks me questions. But then when I’m playing off, I watch him. I like to see how he moves and then I pick his brain about what’s going through his mind. I think that’s very interesting to look at him and be like ‘Damn, he makes that look easy.’”
Tindal said that Nelson is very technically sound as well, which Nelson said comes in part from working with defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard and watching last year’s starters for tips on how to improve his own game. So while it might have been tough to sit out for a season, Nelson said that he feels more prepared to step in to a starting role now than he did when he arrived on campus.
“It was really tough, but it was humbling,” Nelson said of his redshirt year. “I got a lot stronger, a lot faster. I learned a lot from coach Leonhard, Sojourn, Derrick Tindal, Musso, and D’Cota.”
“They taught me a lot of stuff but I had to go off of what the other team did (in scout team). But now I get to actually work in our scheme.”
Count Tindal as one player who is excited to see what Nelson can do when he takes the field for the Badgers this fall. He might not be a one-season-and-done upgrade like Ramczyk was, but Nelson has certainly earned the respect of his teammates as he gets ready to put on the red and white before starting his second game at Camp Randall.
“I look at it as, if you take the 11 best players on our (defense), Natrell (Jamerson) is one, and Nick is one. D’Cota is one, and I’m one,” Tindal said. “We need all of us to be on the field at the same time. It’s really big because you’ve always need people to be ready to step up. That’s why I think Nick got the starting spot, because he showed he was ready to make plays.”
“He had great seasons at Hawaii. Honestly I’m not worried about anything with him – I just know he’s ready to play.”
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.