2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Safeties
The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.
AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.
Like the cornerbacks, 2018's experiences helped Wisconsin's safeties the following season. Even with Scott Nelson missing the last 13 games of the 2019 campaign after suffering a left leg injury in the opener at South Florida, Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson picked up the slack and solidified the defensive backfield.
The duo placed in the top five on the team in tackles while also recording 3.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles each. Burrell tied for the lead in interceptions with inside linebacker Jack Sanborn (three), but he also showed his ability to make an impact in the backfield. His strip-sack of Northwestern's Hunter Johnson directly led to a Matt Henningsen touchdown. Pearson displayed his ability to lay the lumber with his physicality in his first full year as a starter.
A Houston transfer turned Wisconsin walk-on, Collin Wilder stepped up and played in all 14 games. He saw the field often and finished the year tied for second on the team in pass breakups with Burrell and sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose (six).
When Burrell and Pearson needed to sit for the first half of the Northwestern game due to respective targeting penalties in the second half of the Michigan game, John Torchio started alongside Wilder against Northwestern the following week. The walk-on also intercepted a pass against the Wolverines in September.
Mais played in all 14 games, especially with work on special teams. Like Torchio, he needed to step up later in that first conference game of the year against Jim Harbaugh's program. Junior Madison Cone also played in 10 games after making the switch to the position from cornerback.
With Nelson returning from injury, just how will the rotation look this upcoming season, and what more will this experienced position group accomplish?
- Reggie Pearson (14 games, 13 starts): 60 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles
- Eric Burrell (14 games, 13 starts): 55 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, six pass breakups, two forced fumbles
- Collin Wilder (14 games, two starts): 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, six pass breakups
- Tyler Mais (14 games): Five tackles
- John Torchio (Eight games, one start): Three tackles, one interception, two pass breakups
- Scott Nelson (One game, one start): Four tackles, one pass breakup
- Madison Cone (10 games): Seven tackles
In terms of overall play -- like AllBadgers.com mentioned with the cornerbacks on Thursday -- giving up only 43 and 64 yards receiving against non-conference opponents Central Michigan and Kent State pops out. Looking at tougher opponents, Wisconsin held Oregon to a season-low 138 yards passing -- 129.5 yards under its average heading into the 2020 Rose Bowl. UW's 38-0 win over Michigan State in October also saw the defense clamp down on Brian Lewerke and the Spartans' passing attack to the tune of 119 yards.
In terms of individual performances, it is hard to ignore Burrell's second half strip-sack against Johnson and the Wildcats. That took a four-point lead and extended it to a 14-3 advantage in the third quarter with the UW offense floundering. Wisconsin would need another defensive touchdown from outside linebacker Noah Burks on a pick-six to help solidify the win.
Also against Minnesota, Burrell and Pearson combined for 15 tackles in the road win on Nov. 30. The former also broke up three passes while the latter registered a tackle for loss in the regular season finale.
I will stick with similar outings like I mentioned previously with the corners. In the home finale against Purdue, third-string quarterback Aidan O'Connell and the Boilermakers' offense passed for 326 yards. Jeff Brohm utilized some trickery, including a wide receiver pass that went for a score, but the divisional foe made some plays against the secondary.
Ohio State's second half performance in the Big Ten Championship game, one where Justin Fields and the Buckeyes eventually finished with 320 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air, also stands out.
Question for 2020: How Will the Rotation Play Out Next Season?
Wisconsin will not lose any safeties due to eligibility exhaustion. With Nelson planning to be back from injury based on his September tweet, it will be worth watching just who progresses, who finds time on the field and how defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard utilizes this room in 2020.
Nelson and Pearson received a lot of first-team reps during fall camp practices open to the media in August. That being said, those two and Burrell opened as starters against USF in a three-safety nickel look. Leonhard has shown that he will use that many from the position group on the field depending upon opponents and their respective personnel.
Pearson mentioned in an August interview with BadgerBlitz.com about how the group is versatile and how certain players within it can play at safety or in nickel situations.
There is solid experience here as five players can boast they started at some point last season -- and another one (Cone) who did so in 2018. How will it all shake out, and can 2019 signee Titus Toler, who redshirted in his first year in Madison, also find ways to make waves?