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Jim Leonhard-Wilder gaining confidence

Wisconsin defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard holds a football before an NCAA college football game against Florida Atlantic Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

By the time Collin Wilder takes the field at South Florida on Aug. 30, nearly two full years will have passed since he last played a game of football.

The Badgers safety tore his ACL just two games into the 2017 season while at Houston, and he sat out last year due to NCAA rules after transferring to the University of Wisconsin.

As spring practice progresses, his teammates can sense a different level of play from the junior as he inches closer to a belated return to the field.

"He's looking really good lately," UW sophomore safety Scott Nelson said. "His knee feels a lot better. ... He was just not as confident on it (last year), still gaining that mental aspect back. He's kind of past that now. You can definitely tell."

Wilder played as a true freshman at Houston in 2016, mostly on special teams, before his sophomore season ended abruptly.

He's taken the bulk of second-team reps during spring practice behind Nelson and junior Eric Burrell and becomes eligible just in time to soften the blow of D'Cota Dixon's departure.

Nelson called Wilder a "gamer" - someone who's going to elevate his level of play on Saturdays in the fall. Come August, he'll finally earn an opportunity to show what he can do at safety.

"He's a very physical player. Very smart, instinctual player," Nelson said. "He played at Houston. He played at a high level in high school. He's a very talented player. ... He knows the defense really well. Really happy to have him eligible this year. I know he'll definitely provide a lot for this team."

UW defense holds twice at goal line

Nelson made the play of Friday night's scrimmage when he ripped the ball out of John Chenal's arms just before the goal-line, ending a 14-play drive that started on the offense's 33-yard line.

The Badgers' defense made another goal-line stand on the very next drive. Wilder and safety Reggie Pearson both delivered big hits inside the 5-yard line before Danny Vanden Boom threw an incompletion on fourth down from the 3.

True freshman quarterback Graham Mertz threw the only touchdown of the day on the following possession. Nakia Watson began the drive with a 44-yard run, and Mertz finished it off with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Groshek.

Nelson also intercepted Jack Coan to begin the scrimmage. True freshman outside linebacker Spencer Lytle recorded two sacks.

From the infirmary

Offensive lineman Logan Bruss (left thumb) practiced Friday with a giant club on his left hand but didn't participate in team drills. Cornerback Faion Hicks was in pads with no apparent limitations after sitting out Tuesday with a right leg injury.

Cornerback Madison Cone, who returned from a right leg injury Tuesday, sat out Friday. Running back Brady Schipper left the field during the scrimmage.

Fullback Mason Stokke (right leg), tight ends Jake Ferguson (right leg), Luke Benzschawel and Coy Wanner, wide receivers Cade Green and Emmet Perry, cornerback Travian Blaylock and offensive lineman Blake Smithback all remained out.

Extra points

Hicks and Deron Harrell took initial first-team reps at cornerback Friday. ... Former Badgers safety Natrell Jamerson, now with the Green Bay Packers, was in attendance for Friday's practice.

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