Before safety Scott Nelson even arrived on campus at the University of Wisconsin last summer, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard knew the Detroit native could rise to the top of the Badgers' depth chart early in his career.
Nelson already had the talent and mentality to compete at the next level. And even though a hamstring injury kept him out of fall camp and ultimately led to a redshirt, Leonhard's confidence in Nelson only grew as last season progressed.
"He watched almost as much tape as anybody, and he knew he wasn't going to play a snap," Leonhard said. "So you know that guy's willing to work, and he got better. He took coaching points and got stronger in the weight room. I think that added to his confidence because he's been through a year."
Nelson went on to earn UW's Co-Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year and has emerged as the early favorite during spring practice to replace Natrell Jamerson in the starting lineup. With returning starter D'Cota Dixon (right shoulder) out this spring, Nelson's consistently taking the first-team reps at safety along with Patrick Johnson.
It doesn't appear as if Nelson's film-watching habits are changing anytime soon, either.
"(Dixon and I) always go up to Coach Leonhard's office, probably four or five times a week," Nelson said. "We'll watch old games. I can't tell you how many times we watched (last year's) Ohio State game. We watched that one probably 15, 20 times."
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It doesn't hurt that Nelson's developed a strong bond with Dixon over the past 10 months.
Their relationship began during a bible study last summer and took off as the year progressed. Nelson often shadowed Dixon in the Badgers' post-game interview room following games before Dixon accompanied Nelson and his family to dinner. At this point, Nelson considers his mentor part of the family, and Dixon even calls Nelson's mother "Mama."
Nelson and Dixon often put in extra work following practices, and Nelson said he learned helpful habits from Dixon. Nelson dropped two interceptions during Thursday's practice before working on his hands using the JUGS machine afterward. The next day, he made a nice grab to intercept starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook during team drills.
If Nelson does eventually win a starting job this season, he said his already-strong relationship with Dixon could help tremendously in creating a successful partnership on the field.
"It's that trust factor where you can kind of look at each other and you know what each other's talking about without even saying anything," Nelson said. "You can signal something or look at each other and you can just tell. That's just with hours and hours of film study and knowing the kind of player he is, the kind of person he is."
Nelson's yet to play a down for UW, and others at the position like Johnson or sophomore Eric Burrell still have four-plus months to push for that starting spot opposite Dixon.
There appears to be plenty of optimism that Nelson's up for the task of replacing Jamerson, however, and his accelerated growth could be crucial to a Badgers secondary that's also replacing both starters at cornerback this offseason.
"He has not played a snap on the field, but he knows this defense, he knows our adjustments," Leonhard said. "I think it's given him the confidence to go out there early and just play."