It certainly didn’t seem like it at the time, but Scott Nelson tearing his ACL in the first game of the 2019 season might have just paved his way into a potential NFL career.
No one, of course, wants to get injured, especially one as severe as that. You become detached from the team, spending time in rehab and in the training room instead of in meetings, at practice or on the field.
Yet when looking back at his progression, the former Wisconsin safety understands what that torn ACL meant in the long run.
“Nobody wants it to happen, but I think it was necessary for the growth of me as a person,” said Nelson. “Both in football and my faith and just the developing in my journey.”
That’s not to say Nelson became detached from the team altogether. He did what he could to tether himself to the Badgers, including bargaining with Wisconsin’s trainers to allow him to witness practice and be around his teammates.
Nelson didn’t want to just bog himself down in his rehabilitation. He wanted to be a part of the team in any way possible – and thus his role of a player/coach began and evolved.
“It was tough. It was tough because everybody was telling you how big a role you were supposed to have on the team and supposed to do this and that and help the team,” Nelson said. “Obviously when that happens the first game you’re kind of in a position where you’re faced with the crossroads where you can – not really give up, but go by the wayside and allow whatever happens that year and you don’t really have an impact or you can embrace the new role you have, and I tried to embrace being a player-coach as much as I could and help the guys out on the field, be another set of eyes for him, just communicate with them as much as I could when they came off the field so they could have any chance of more success on the field.”
While Nelson would have preferred being on the field helping his teammates, his work off it had a side benefit which ended up helping his play in 2020 and ’21 – “knowledge of the defense and scheming for the offense and how all that works together,” Nelson explained.
But that wasn’t the only thing Nelson gained upon his return in 2020. Fellow defensive back Faion Hicks said Nelson was faster upon his return from his torn ACL, a notion with which the safety agreed.
When Nelson started running again, about nine months after the injury, he ran with sleds and instead of his normal leg exercises concentrated on single-leg explosive work and jumps.
“A combination of that taps into stuff that you might not do from normal back squat or normal dead lifts, where you’re always using two legs,” Nelson said. “But single-leg squats just helped me out a ton. I think I came back and kind of surprised some people. They were wondering ‘Where did you get so fast?’ It was pretty funny.”
While during the summers Nelson would race with other fast members of the Badgers (“I worked my way up to the first-tiered group,” he said), not everyone was a believer.
This past summer, fellow safety freshman Hunter Wohler challenged him to a race after practice one day.
“I had to show him that he bit off a little more than he can chew,” laughed Nelson, who easily won that contest.
Nelson showed off his speed to a larger group on Pro Day, when he ran 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash on his second attempt (he wasn’t satisfied with a 4.45 time on his initial run, saying he wasn’t relaxed and felt a little stiff and tight).
He also posted a time of 3.92 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle – designed to show direction, acceleration and how quickly a player can get in and out of cuts – which was a better time than any safety at the NFL combine. His vertical leap of 39 1/2 inches wasn’t topped by any safety at the combine with only Baylor’s J.T. Woods equaling that mark.
Noting Hicks also put up good numbers, the cornerback ran a 4.37 in the 40, Nelson is encouraged the pair shed some negative stereotypes surrounding Wisconsin secondary players.
“Hopefully that answers some questions about the type of athletes we are and we’re athletic enough to play these positions in the NFL,” he said.
Not that Nelson was totally off the NFL’s radar – he participated in the College Gridiron Showcase in January – but he said his Pro Day “helped me get back on the map and put myself in a position where teams are trying to find out more about me.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard suddenly started fielding calls from teams to find out more about Nelson.
“Hopefully he’s speaking relatively highly of me,” joked Nelson.
The teams were also reaching out to Nelson, who had local player workouts with Detroit and Green Bay and hour-long Zoom interviews with the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals.
But teams wouldn’t call just based on Pro Day results. That might have gotten Nelson more attention but his football ability obviously carries a lot of weight as well.
Nelson gives a lot of credit to Leonhard for his development. Safeties have a lot of responsibility in Wisconsin’s defense. In fact, the Badgers don’t use the usual terminology of free and strong with their safeties.
On the defensive whiteboard, the safeties are represented by dollar signs. That shows that both safeties have the same tasks but also perhaps sheds some light on the importance of the position in Leonhard’s scheme.
Nelson was asked to play both sides, in the post covering receivers, at the line covering tight ends, in the box as a pseudo-linebacker, playing the run or even going after the quarterback on a blitz. That kind of versatility Nelson hopes plays well with NFL teams who might be interested in adding a safety.
“You can’t really hide in our defense,” Nelson said. “It shows the player you are, the more well-rounded you are so obviously teams at the next level can say he’s done this, he’s done this and he’s done this. We can fit into what we really need to do.”
Another thing Nelson proved is he could stay healthy. A hamstring injury as a freshman held him to nine games and then there was the torn ACL which cost him all but one game in 2019.
Nelson missed just one game the past two seasons – and he thinks he should have played in that one. He contracted COVID at the start of fall camp and had to sit out three weeks. His first day back was the day before the opener. One practice in wasn’t enough to get him on the field, however, as Leonhard told him he’d be used on an emergency basis only. Such an emergency never occurred.
“I could have played,” Nelson said. “I still tell him that he should have played me.”
Playing in the final six games of the abbreviated 2020 season, Nelson recorded 22 tackles, four for a loss, two interceptions and two passes broken up. This past year Nelson finished fourth on Wisconsin with 61 tackles, four for a loss, with six passes broken up and an interception.
“It was big mentally for me to be out there game after game after game and to be out there with the guys and be there for my team as much as I could after missing all of those games in the past,” Nelson said. “It was really big. Hopefully it showed people that I can stay healthy and it’s not something that continually happens.”
Nelson is hoping more games are on the horizon. He knows, though, there are no guarantees. One thing that dollar sign doesn’t represent is Wisconsin safeties making it to the NFL.
There are currently no former Badgers safeties in the league (Natrell Jamerson was released by Las Vegas in late March). Two have been drafted since Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 defense in 2013 – Dezmen Southward in 2014 and Jamerson in 2018, although they both also played cornerback with the Badgers.
“This isn’t an RBU of Wisconsin where we’re arguing about being the best in the country to put out backs,” said Nelson, comparing the safety position to one which gains more notoriety. “But I think it’s starting to change a little bit. With having the No. 1 defense and a top-five passing defense in the country it needs to bring a little light to the whole position group -- cornerbacks, safeties, the defensive back group at Wisconsin.
“It’s an incredible scheme and I give almost all the credit to coach Leonhard and his staff. Even with all that, you still need to have real good players in the field. Hopefully we continue with coach Leonhard and the staff and we’ll get more love in the next few years.”
Whether Nelson gets enough love from an NFL team to get drafted, well, he knows there’s no guarantee of that, even with the uptick in interest. There’s a chance he’s undrafted. Heck, he even mentioned he might have to go to more than one team before he finds a home.
He isn’t just happy to be here, so to speak, and definitely wants a chance, but Nelson is keeping a level head when it comes to the draft process.
Still, it’s been quite the six weeks. The torn ACL might have shaped the player he became but that Pro Day could be the seminal moment which forged a pro career.
“People noticed me and there’s teams that expressed interest, told me they like me a lot and told me they’d love to have me. That’s been a fun process to hear,” Nelson said. “As a kid who always wanted to play some type of professional sport, it’s kind of fun to see it all unfold in front of you.”