INDIANAPOLIS – In the hours that led up to Wisconsin prime-time match-up against Ohio State, defensive end Christian Bell came out to a quiet Camp Randall Stadium, looked around before sitting on a bench on the sidelines and soaked it in.
It ticked him off.
“I was just going through my mind, seeing myself out there playing,” Bell said. “Personally I think it pissed me off. It made me want to work harder to get there at some point.”
Bell, along with tailback Chris James and cornerback Nick Nelson, have had zero impact on the field this season, but that’s not to say their decision to start over at Wisconsin hasn’t already been made the previous four days.
Neither of three will be on the sideline at Lucas Oil Stadium when No.6 Wisconsin (10-2) faces No.8 Penn State (10-2) tonight for a Big Ten championship, which has been the case all season in games outside Camp Randall Stadium. When the Badgers hit the road, the three transfers instead hit the weight room, study the playbook and get ready for the next week’s scout work.
But they will take solace that they gave the starters everything they had to get them ready during the week.
“Our coaches always say that the defense is as good as the looks we give them,” James said. “To see them doing so well this year, maybe we are doing well. I always try to give myself credit because in practice I get some runs on them and (the opponent) didn’t, so maybe I am just as good as them. It’s little things to keep us all motivated.”
Scout team is thankless work hidden behind the scenes. It can be even harder for players who had a taste of playing on Saturdays and have had it taken away.
James played in 23 games his freshman and sophomore season at Pittsburgh. He was Paul Chryst’s top reserve for the Panthers in 2014, rushing for 437 yards and four touchdowns on 87 carries (5.0 avg.) and added one reception for 23 yards. When Chryst left, along with offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and running back coach John Settle, James decided to give the new coaching staff a chance before ultimately following his former coaches.
Now instead of working on his game, James is impersonating others, one week being a power running back and the next week being shifty and unpredictable.
“I think the transition has been mostly weird,” James said. “It’s something I’m not really used to, from not travelling with the team to sitting back and watching everybody else play. From the scout team perspective, it’s actually been quite challenging going against a defense that challenges us every single day. That’s what I try to install in the guys every single day to see this as an opportunity to get better.”
Nelson started 21 games at cornerback for Hawaii, including all 13 last season. He finished with 53 total tackles, 1.5 TFLs, a sack, 15 pass breakups and a forced fumble.
He played at Wisconsin in 2015, something that causes good-natured ribbing between him and his new teammates about Dare Ogunbowale making a cut block on him or Taiwan Deal breaking one of his tackles. He can also boast, considering he made nine tackles and took down Deal for a half tackle for loss.
It’s virtually the same thing he’s doing now on scout team.
“It’s pretty tough, but it’s fun because you are going against the ones every day and getting them better,” Nelson said. “I am pretty good with adversity. I feel like everything happens for a reason.”
And when things get too frustrating, the pair have that bond of knowing they are going through withdrawal together.
“We always chat about it,” James said of Nelson, who is his roommate. “We sit up some nights talking about it. I am his wing man when it comes to handling it, too. He gets frustrated about it, but I always tell him in due time, our time is coming, so seize every opportunity that we get as far as practice reps, workouts and all the extra stuff that will help us in the end.”
Chasing a New Dream
Each transfer story is unique but usually falls into one of two categories: a player not fitting in with a new coaching staff or a player no longer feeling connected to the school. The former was the case with James and the latter fits with the Maryland-native Nelson, who wanted to play closer to his family.
Bell fits into neither of those of categories, especially since he was given an opportunity to live out his dream scenario.
Bell wanted to badly play at Alabama, a reason he quickly jumped on a scholarship offer from Nick Saban in April 2014, roughly 22 months before he could sign his national letter of intent. Even when he was asked to delay his enrollment for eighth months because Alabama asked him to grayshirt, Bell was excited to sign last December and take part in spring football.
The fun stopped after that. Seeing he was going to be buried on the depth chart and wouldn’t have much chance to make an early impact, Bell walked away from his dream after just one semester.
“It was real hard,” Bell admitted. “I didn’t really tell anybody for about a month when I knew I was going to transfer. It was very hard because I knew that at that time of the year people don’t have a lot of scholarships. I was going to school 45 minutes away and a different school would be at least two hours away.”
Bell wanted to transfer somewhere that could offer him early playing time and a scholarship for that fall, not the easiest thing to find just a couple months before the start of a new season. Having a connection with redshirt freshman tailback Bradrick Shaw (the two were teammates at Hoover HS in Alabama), Bell contacted Wisconsin, took an official visit and fell in love with the opportunity.
“I wasn’t going to go anywhere that didn’t have a scholarship,” Bell said. “My second option would have been going to junior college. I was really lucky.”
Growing their games
All three players have a chance to make a tangible impact next season.
Nelson was one of Wisconsin’s top cornerbacks in fall camp with his ability to make breaks on the ball, stick with receivers and play physical. He also gets to practice two sets of coverage; junior Jazz Peavy requires Nelson to spot on with his press coverage while Rob Wheelwright’s bigger frame demands Nelson play more physical.
“I came in with some techniques and Coach Leonhard was able to sharpen some things up,” Nelson said. “That helped me a lot in fall camp. I feel like this year I’m getting a lot better, a lot stronger. I’m getting better mentally, just going against them and getting extra work in the weight room.
“I’m real fortunate to have a scholarship here. It’s probably one of the best things that happened.”
Bell has meshed with outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, saying he learns something new from him on a daily basis. As he’s spent time in the scheme, he calls outside linebacker “his forte” because the Badgers ask the linebackers to do more pass rushing than pass covering.
While his time at Alabama was short, Bell said the semester taught him different techniques and skills on how to attack offensive linemen, becoming well adapt at reading the player.
“I learned I can go to a level that I never thought I could reach,” Bell said, saying he’s “undefeated” on scout team. “I just approach each practice like it’s my game day. Once next season comes, I want to be ready to go. I’m going against the ones each and every day, so it’s going to do nothing but make me better.”
James will be tasked with helping Wisconsin fill the void left by graduating seniors Corey Clement and Ogunbowale. He calls road games tough because he’s powerless to help when things aren’t working. It’s the main reason why his push for playing time in 2017 has already begun.
“Every single day we workout at 7 o’clock in the morning,” James said. “That’s definitely been my fuel every single day. Seeing the opportunity I’m going to be able to have next year, why not work? Why not stay here Friday when the team is gone and get extra work in? It’s going to help in the end.”