MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The University of Wisconsin entered Saturday’s Orange Bowl with four underclassmen still undecided on the immediate future of their football careers — whether they would remain with the Badgers one more season or declare early entry to the NFL Draft.
It’s certainly a higher number than usual for UW, and the decisions of those four juniors — cornerback Nick Nelson, inside linebacker T.J. Edwards and offensive linemen Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel — could dramatically influence the outlook of next year’s team.
That outlook began looking a bit more clear just minutes after the Badgers’ 34-24 victory over Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. Nelson announced in UW’s locker room after the game that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, while Benzschawel said he plans on returning for his senior year.
"I’ve been planning this out,” Nelson said. "I sat down and wrote down (this goal), and everything came true. ... After praying with my family and just talking, over time, I just felt like that was the best decision to make."
Nelson, who broke a school record for pass breakups this season, won’t be easy to replace. His departure means UW will now be forced to break in three new starters in the secondary next season.
He said he received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board but that the evaluation noted Nelson’s 40-yard dash time expects to play a major factor in where he’s ultimately selected.
“It said second round, depending on my 40, really,” Nelson said. “I know that, if it’s top three rounds, you might as well go. I don’t think I could help (my draft stock) coming back to school. The opportunity presented itself, and I just went."
Nelson’s departure isn’t necessarily a surprise, and neither is Benzschawel’s decision to stay.
While the three-year starter earned third-team All-American honors at guard from the Associated Press, Benzschawel stands to benefit from another year in college.
“(The advisory board) told me to come back, but they told T.J. Watt last year to come back,” Benzschawel said, referring to the former UW outside linebacker who ended up being selected late in the first round. "I was going to be a Day 2, Day 3 guy, so I just wanted to make sure that I can increase my chances of next year to be higher.
“I want to be a better player before I take that next step, and obviously I’ve got a lot of work to do."
Both Edwards and Deiter said they received return-to-school grades from the advisory board, which evaluates players as first round, second round or return to school.
Deiter played left tackle this season for the first time, but he projects as an interior lineman at the next level. It’s possible he’d only return if doing so meant switching back to guard or center next season.
If he joins Benzschawel in remaining at UW, the Badgers would return every offensive lineman from this season and 10 total starters on offense.
Before receiving his return-to-school grade, Edwards said earlier this month that he would “definitely have to (get) some good feedback” or he would “probably be leaning to come back.” The advisory board isn’t the only avenue players receive information about their draft stock, however.
“I didn’t expect to get a first- or second-round grade, to be honest with you,” Edwards said Thursday. “It is what it is. ... I’m still on the fence, just because there’s so many things that go into it."
Edwards said Saturday that he expects to make his decision very soon. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft is Jan. 15.
"I’ve just got to talk to my family and a couple people and see where I’m at,” Edwards said.