Scott Nelson left his coaches in a brief scramble during a playoff game his junior year at University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 2015.
Up against eventual-state champion Detroit Martin Luther King Jr. High, Nelson bolted out of position seconds after a snap on his team’s first defensive possession of the game.
Confusion on UD-Jesuit’s sideline quickly turned to celebration.
“He was the deep safety. We’re watching and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing? What is he doing?’” former UD-Jesuit head coach Oscar Olejniczak said. “He had watched film so much and knew some of their plays — keys to what was going to happen. They ran this play-action bootleg, and he knew exactly where the receivers were going to be and where the quarterback was going to be. He stepped in front of an over route, intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown."
This wasn’t the first or last play of that type Nelson has executed during his budding football career — one always driven by his uncommonly high football IQ.
It’s a major reason why he earned the University of Wisconsin’s starting free safety job as a redshirt freshman this season. After an encouraging debut against Western Kentucky last week, Nelson enters Saturday’s contest against New Mexico as one of the Badgers’ most promising young defensive players on a roster full of them.
He developed that athletic intelligence long before his move to Madison, though. During his formative years, It served as the only way to survive games against his older brother and his friends.
"I was never the biggest guy,” said Nelson, who’s now listed at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds. "They were all six years older than me, so I kind of had to do something else that would make myself stick out so I could play with them.
"I don’t know if my parents knew some of the stuff that we were doing, like live tackling drills in the basement. ... We would play tackle football in the snow and (my brother) would just drill me. When I started playing (organized) football, it made it so much easier just because I was used to it. He kind of instilled that in me."
By the time Nelson reached high school, he proved himself mentally ready for just about any situation.
He intercepted a pass as a ninth grader in UD-Jesuit’s district championship game just a few weeks after being moved up to varsity from the freshman team. When injuries forced Olejniczak into finding a fill-in quarterback two years later, turning to Nelson felt like the most logical solution.
"He was able to step right in and be highly, highly successful at quarterback just because, again, he understood what was happening on the football field,” Olejniczak said.
It comes as no surprise to Olejniczak that Nelson’s adapting so well to major college football. If not for a left leg injury that kept Nelson out for nearly all of fall camp and part of the season last year, he may have played as a true freshman.
UW defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said if healthy from the start of camp, Nelson could have contributed on three or four special teams units last season and eventually earned snaps at safety. By the time he worked his way back from the injury, however, it wasn’t worth burning his redshirt.
"It was one of those situations where, honestly, if the rules were as they are this year, he would have played four games and possibly more,” Leonhard said. "The biggest thing is he sees things well. He sees things the way you want a safety to see them, and he’s able to communicate. When you can do those two things, it helps you out so much. You’re not just playing plays. You’re out there actually trying to diagnose what an offense is doing to you, and I think he does that better than most young guys."
D’Cota Dixon’s advice to Nelson before his first game may not be what one would expect.
The Badgers’ strong safety, entering his third year as a starter, told Nelson he’d make mistakes against Western Kentucky and to be prepared for that trend to continue throughout the season.
Nelson still has plenty to learn and, as a young player, likely won’t get through his first game action at this level without some bumps along the way.
Nelson will admit that before anyone, and did so Friday night by shouldering the blame for the Hilltoppers’ longest gain — a 48-yard pass that set up their only 3 points of the game. Nelson also dropped an interception in the first quarter.
“The one deep pass they caught, that was on me,” Nelson said without even being asked about the play. "I had bad eyes on that one. So it wasn’t Faion (Hicks). That was me. ... It was a little instincts, but it’ll tighten up."
Dixon praised that level of accountability, saying, "I think the fact that he can acknowledge it, that’s huge. Especially for a young guy, that’s very huge to take ownership like that. I’m proud of him."
Dixon took Nelson under his wing last season. The two became close off the field shortly after Nelson arrived on campus, and they often put in extra work together on the field after practice. The fifth-year senior said Nelson’s mentality reminded him of his own — both in the way he studies the game and his desire to take responsibility for the success or failures of UW’s entire defense.
With a couple more years of experience, Nelson’s impact on the Badgers may reach far beyond his physical ability on the field.
"He’s a guy that wants the pressure,” Dixon said. "He wants to be a leader. He wants to take ownership. When things are going wrong, he wants to be the guy to take responsibility for it.
"Some people just were born to be leaders, and he’s one of those type of guys. I could immediately recognize that.”