MADISON, Wis. — If Nate Hammon is being honest with himself, the fact that he finds himself on the field for critical moments of football games at Wisconsin still provides a pinch-me moment. The guy who thought he’d be a college quarterback and then spent a year at wide receiver instead certainly didn’t envision any contributions would come at safety.
“I never thought this year ever,” Hammon said. “After last year, I didn’t think I was ever going to see the field. Ever.”
But Hammon, a redshirt freshman, has emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises to Wisconsin’s entire defense, and his role continues to grow. He’ll be on the field once again for a considerable number of snaps when No. 17 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) plays host to Indiana (4-5, 2-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Hammon’s story begins in high school, when he was convinced he would be a college quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder was an honorable mention all-state pick at Milton (Wis.) High as a senior. He passed for 2,077 yards and 19 touchdowns that season and added 819 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns. Hammon visited a Wisconsin camp, but the pervious coaching staff shied away from him when he didn’t seem open to a position switch. Instead, he decided he would attend Illinois State.
Then, just days before national signing day, Wisconsin offered Hammon a scholarship — provided he would sit out the first semester as a grayshirt and switch positions. Hammon, who needed to undergo foot surgery anyway, decided the move fit.
Still, the transition did not go as smoothly as he hoped. He began his career at safety and switched to wide receiver almost immediately in the summer of 2012. He spent all of last season as a scout-team wide receiver and felt lost.
“I was just struggling there,” Hammon said. “I wasn’t very good. I just wasn’t understanding everything. I was trying to set my goals on special teams.”
Wisconsin brought in a new coaching staff in the offseason and opted to move Hammon back to safety. Badgers safeties coach Bill Busch said he saw something in Hammon during spring practices and believed he could be vital in a role covering tight ends. Of course, he had to beat out his teammates in the fall.
“I wasn’t anywhere on their radar,” Hammon said. “I was like third or fourth string. I kept trying to show them what I could do. Kept trying to take coaching and get better.”
Hammon’s big break came in Week 3 against Arizona State, when coaches decided to put him on the field for 50 plays. In that game, he helped hold Sun Devils tight end Chris Coyle to three catches for 33 yards. And he has continued to improve over the past two months as he has grown more comfortable on the field.
“He makes my life easy,” Busch said. “He’s a one-time guy. Something happens and you correct it. It’s like, ‘Nate, this is how we’re doing this.’ OK, I got it. That makes sense. He’s very intelligent academically and the same with football. Football comes easy to him as far as what we’re trying to do. He’s never confused.”
Hammon’s role has expanded over the course of the season. Last week against BYU, for example, coaches asked both he and safety Dez Southward to play some cornerback and handle bigger wide receivers in man coverage. Hammon, who was on the field for 47 plays, did not allow a single catch to a skill position player and gave up just one catch to a tight end across the middle.
“He’s kind of a utility guy,” UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “He’s really allowed us week in and week out to get matchups and set other people up. So he’s had to kind of take the brunt of, ‘Hey, now you’re playing this’ or ‘Hey, now you’re over here.’ And he’s done a great job of it.”
This season, Hammon has recorded 15 tackles, including one sack. He credits Busch for having faith in him and allowing him to make mistakes. Hammon noted Busch is not a stickler for every little detail and instead tries to help Hammon with alignment, tips on tendencies of players in various formations and what routes they might run.
All of it has clicked for Hammon, whose importance to Wisconsin’s defense grows each week.
“I just pretty much do whatever coaches ask me to do, I guess,” he said.
The better Hammon performs, the more coaches are asking.