MADISON, WI - NOVEMBER 20: Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) and Wisconsin Badgers safety Scott Nelson (9) celebrate with fans for the final time after a college football game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Wisconsin Badgers on November 20th, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Recently we spoke to four former Wisconsin players as the NFL draft approached: tight end Jake Ferguson, defensive lineman Matt Henningsen, cornerback Faion Hicks and safety Scott Nelson.

In addition to talking about themselves, each was asked about the state of the Badgers program. During their time playing over the past four years, Wisconsin had a winning record in each and won three bowl games yet finished in the final Associated Press top-25 poll just once (2019). The questions posed: What went right, what went wrong and what needs to occur for Wisconsin to take the next step?

Here are their answers split up in “oral history” form for readability.

Jake Ferguson: “That’s tough. This past year was … I look back and I’m like we should have won those games at the beginning. But to go from 1-3 to 9-4 with all the injuries we had, it was something that was really special to me and I’m glad I came back.” 

Faion Hicks: “It was hard for us to be consistent. We’d have a year where we do really, really well, and then we didn’t back it up the next year. I’d probably say just us finishing strong, man, that’s something we haven’t done well in a long time. I think as a program just being consistent and being us, figuring it out sooner rather than later. I think that’s going to come in time.” 

Scott Nelson: “I think the past few years we’ve been challenged. In 2020, we were injured a lot. We were really struggling with injuries, especially on the offensive side. We were playing with a lot of young guys and a lot of guys with not a lot of experience and that’s tough when you’re playing a Big Ten schedule. I mean a Big Ten schedule is full of guys who have been playing for four or five years and have that experience.” 

Matt Henningsen: “At the end of the day it’s really hard to win football games. It’s a hard thing to do. I’m thankful to have been a part of some really good football teams while I was at Wisconsin. But at the end of the day it comes down to execution and making plays down the stretch and there were times that I felt like maybe we could have been better in that regard. It comes down to preparation and everything, right? You can’t point at one thing and say, ‘if only we had done this then we would have won the Big Ten.’ That’s not how it works. That’s not football. If it was like that, we would have done it by now.”

Nelson: “Injuries definitely played a big role and last year I think it was similar. We might have had everybody playing and it wasn’t everyone’s full strength. We had our bye week after the second game and I think we played 10 straight. Unlike a lot of teams who had it in the middle of the season, we were going through a gauntlet of doing whatever we could to win games because we weren’t really in control of our own destiny. It got to the point we got where we were and it kind of fell apart on us at the end of the year. It was challenging to have it end that way but just trying to be as healthy as a team as you can is so undervalued, I think. Even if guys are playing, the injuries are still there and fans may wonder what’s going on or something but guys are doing whatever they can to help the team win. I mean, so much treatment and extra work to try and just play is something that people really don’t see.” 

Ferguson: “The only thing that I wish would have happened was we won that Big Ten championship against Ohio State (in 2019) and then we won the Rose Bowl. But those were basically just – I mean, the dropped punts in both of those were the momentum swing that kind of killed us. Everything else was awesome. I mean it’s Wisconsin football, I love it.” 

Hicks: “Obviously, it’s tough to win. A lot of people don’t realize that. We had a winning record every year – that’s not easy in college football and a lot of teams don’t do it. It’s easier said than done. But I believe in the coaching staff. They have a lot of good things going on now.” 

Henningsen: “There’s no one thing you can say that’s what we need to do to get better, it’s honestly, we need to do everything a little bit better and then we’ll be able to finish down the stretch. I’ve been a part of a lot of good football teams at Wisconsin and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Hicks: “In college, you basically have a whole new team every year with seniors leaving and guys transferring, so it’s going to be tough to be consistent every year. I believe the way our program is set up and the culture, it helps us out a lot because we have an identity. A lot of teams don’t have an identity. So just staying true to Wisconsin football, to the Wisconsin identity. … Staying true to our identity and playing Wisconsin football, the sky’s the limit. It’s going to break through soon.” 

Nelson: “I think it will be a continued successful program, we just have to put all the pieces together and I think it will definitely happen soon.”

Ferguson: “But I mean going to these practices right now, going and watching those guys, I might be a little biased, but it looks a lot better than when I was there and I think they’re going to be extremely, extremely good this upcoming year.”

Henningsen: “I get it. We haven’t had a losing season in I don’t know how many years. As long as I’ve been alive! (laughs) We have a good, consistent program. Taking it to the next level is just going to have to bring it up a little bit. And we’ll keep going. I’m confident in what coach Chryst has going at Wisconsin and the culture that we built there and us getting the right guys there.”

Hicks: “I know a lot of people want to see a national championship come to Wisconsin, especially a Big Ten championship. I think those things are going to come soon with the guys that are there now, and they have the team to keep that tradition going.”