MADISON, Wis. — Nearly every college freshman has a good lost-on-campus story, that “uh-oh” moment which cements that life at school is just a little bit different from life back home.
Cornerback Donte Burton said he walked into the wrong class a couple of times in his first few weeks at Wisconsin earlier this semester. Safety Reggie Pearson Jr. made it to the correct building thanks to a GPS device, which proved of little help when he needed to determine in which room his class took place. He had to look at one of those “you are here” maps generally reserved for a megamall to figure out the right floor.
And then there is nose guard Bryson Williams’ story.
“I probably have one of the worst lost-on-campus stories out of all of them,” he said after football practice Thursday.
Williams hopped on a city bus two weeks ago, ready to make his way to a tutoring session. But after a few minutes, he noticed the state capitol building disappearing behind him. The longer he sat on the bus, the farther away he got from his intended destination.
“I’m like, ‘OK, it’ll turn around sometime,” Williams said. “I end up getting about 40 minutes out on that bus, and I have to Uber all the way back because it kept going farther and farther. I was already 15 minutes late. So I just hop off. I was in the middle of nowhere. I had absolutely no idea where I was.”
Welcome to life as a freshman, which is all about adjustment both on the football field and off.
Williams, Burton and Pearson are among five early enrollees in the 2018 recruiting class who are on campus for Wisconsin’s spring practices. The others are wide receivers Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha. That quintet already has forged a strong bond thanks to their shared status as newbies on the roster.
They generally spend time in Pearson’s apartment most nights because there is a nice TV and a sound system. The group takes turns rap-battling each other and dancing. Most of the freestyle raps are admittedly terrible, which is precisely why it’s so much fun.
“We’re together all the time,” Williams said. “Sometimes a little bit too much, but it’s fun. We all care about each other. We’ve gotten immensely closer than I thought we would. It’s awesome. I love the bond that we all have.”
Wisconsin’s early enrollees arrived three months ago to begin the spring semester. They were able to get acclimated to schoolwork, as well as football expectations during offseason weightlifting sessions before spring practice began in March. Each player was a stellar high school prospect who now must figure out how to stand out in a crowd of talented college players.
Pearson was a two-time first-team all-state Associated Press honoree in Michigan. He recorded 355 tackles in his high school career with 21 interceptions. Pearson is learning from a group of Badgers safeties that includes D’Cota Dixon, Patrick Johnson, Eric Burrell, Seth Currens, Scott Nelson and Evan Bondoc. Dixon, the wise veteran of the group, is always happy to provide pointers when young players ask, and Pearson makes sure to pick his brain when possible.
Pearson noted his biggest adjustment has been away from football. Like the other early enrollees, he is taking a full course load that includes classes in communications, animal science, geoscience, military science and counseling psychology.
“The geoscience class is the most confusing class I have,” he said. “It’s about volcanoes. It’s insane. You think when you grow up, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a volcano. You’ve got magma.’ It goes way deeper than that.
“I came here, I was mature but not like what I thought it was going to be. You’ve got to grow up really fast when you get here and definitely handle your business. The first two months, I was slacking a little. I was more focused on football. Now, I have to understand without the school stuff, there’s nothing. I’ve always been a good academic kid, but when I got here living on your own, it’s like, ‘Ah, it’s school.’ But it’s been good.”
Williams and Burton acknowledged the football changes they’ve made have been more difficult than adjusting to college courses. Burton tallied 127 tackles and 8 interceptions at Loganville (Ga.) High School. He earned all-region honors his final three seasons and was a first-team all-state selection as a senior.
Burton is battling with a number of talented cornerbacks for playing time. Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone are the presumed starters at this stage, while Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams also have had strong moments in spring practice. Burton continues to hone simple fundamentals such as tackling techniques.
“I just thought you ran straight at somebody and just hit them as hard as you can,” Burton said. “There are different techniques to tackle, different techniques to off-man, press. It’s different things that I didn’t really think about. I was just playing when I was in high school.”
Williams finished his three-year varsity career at Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast with 195 tackles and 7½ sacks. He also was a two-time first-team all-state selection. Williams was ranked as the No. 3 player in Nebraska for his class, according to the 247Sports composite.
“The biggest change, I think for most people who come here, is you go from being that guy, especially in Lincoln, you go from being the top guy to nothing,” Williams said. “You’re a freshman again. Everybody here was where you were at some point. So nobody cares that you were the top here or ranked, nobody cares anymore. The only number that matters is the one on your back.”
Williams already has positioned himself as a backup nose guard to Olive Sagapolu and could take over as a starter in 2019. He said that would represent “a perfect scenario,” and he will continue to work to achieve that goal.
While enrolling in college early isn’t for everyone, the decision has proved to be immensely valuable for the five new Badgers. They have formed strong friendships, a better understanding of the game and even are beginning to find their way around campus.
“You get to meet everybody, you get to meet the team, you get to get a feel for the coaches and everybody before everybody else,” Burton said. “Just have that early head start before you get into fall camp and everything is moving fast. You already know what to expect coming into it, and you can really just go from there.”