As a whole, Wisconsin’s defense was one of the best in the entire country this season. The Badgers did a terrific job of limiting the big play, and often times bailed out the offense from untimely turnovers.
A large reason for the lack of big plays, at least, was the play of the defensive backfield this season.
Wisconsin had five defensive backs see the field on a regular basis and they did an outstanding job limiting the passing game of their opponents. The Badgers only allowed an average of 160.6 yards though the air per game. Opposing offenses also completed less than half of their passes against Wisconsin this season, coming in at 49.1%.
Nick Nelson was their best player in the secondary on the season. The draft-eligible corner hasn’t decided whether or not he will return to Madison next season, but he may have the brightest NFL future of this bunch.
The only downside to Nelson’s season was that he was unable to record an interception. Other than that, he did everything Wisconsin’s defensive staff could have hoped when they accepted him as a transfer from Hawaii.
Opposite of Nelson was Derrick Tindal at the other cornerback position. Tindal also had a strong season on the outside for Wisconsin. He brought a large amount of experience to this unit. The senior has played in 42 games in his career at Wisconsin. This season he was tested less due to Nelson’s emergence. He finished the year with nine passes defensed and an interception.
At safety, the Badgers saw three players see significant time. Natrell Jamerson started at one of the safety positions in all 13 games, while D’Cota Dixon and Joe Ferguson both played the other safety position.
Jamerson was playing safety for the first time as a Badger, having been at the nickel back position in 2016 and starting his career as a wide receiver. Jamerson brought consistency to that spot despite the lack of experience playing it. His production skyrocketed from the previous two seasons. Obviously, he spent more time on the field, and he took advantage of it.
Jamerson finished the season with 49 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He also picked off a pair of passes, returning one of them for a touchdown in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.
Dixon and Ferguson split time mainly due to the leg injury Dixon suffered. Dixon started eight of the games while Ferguson got the nod in the other five. Both of them were productive, although Dixon is certainly the more talented player.
Before the injury set in for Dixon he was one of the leading tacklers on the team. He finished the year with 52 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. Dixon played a role that many safeties aren’t asked to, where he was typically closer to the box making tackles. In most cases seeing the safety as a leading tackler is a bad thing, but that wasn’t the case for Wisconsin.
While Dixon was less than 100%, Ferguson saw much of the time in his absence. He was a much different type of player than Dixon. Ferguson wasn’t the same tackler as Dixon, finishing with 16 stops. However, he found himself around the ball much more. Ferguson intercepted four passes, returning one for a touchdown, and also recovered a pair of fumbles. Despite his limited time on the field when the Badgers were healthy he was the team leader in takeaways.
GRADE: A- : This secondary was very impressive for Wisconsin. Stopping the big play was something they did well in nearly every game, with the loss to Ohio State the exception. The Badgers allowed plays of more than 50 yards only three times during the regular season. Unfortunately for them, they allowed four such plays against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, preventing them from receiving a higher grade. THat being said, the season as a whole was impressive. Next season they’ll certainly be missed with Jamerson, Ferguson, Tindal, and possibly Nelson moving on from Wisconsin. Dixon does have another year of eligibility and is expected to return.