MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin outside linebacker Nick Herbig‘s teammates noticed something different about him as soon as he arrived on campus two years ago.
The audacity that enabled him to pick a school over 4,000 miles away from his Hawaii home helped make Herbig an immediate weapon for a defense that annually ranks among the nation’s best. As the Badgers replace eight of their top 10 tacklers from last season, they’ll have to count on Herbig for leadership.
According to his teammates, he’s been providing that all along.
“He came out here doing stuff we haven’t seen in a freshman,” defensive tackle Keeanu Benton said. “Even verbally, freshmen usually don’t come in speaking up and stuff like that. He came in, knew what he was doing, and once he figured his stuff out, he was helping his teammates.”
Herbig had 14 + tackles for loss and a team-high nine sacks last season for a Wisconsin defense that allowed the fewest yards per game and yards per play of any Bowl Subdivision team. He’s an Associated Press All-America second-team preseason selection heading into the 18th-ranked Badgers’ Sept. 3 opener with Illinois State.
He says the fire he brings to the field come from spending his childhood with two older brothers in Kauai, Hawaii.
One of his brothers, Nate Herbig, is a New York Jets guard who spent three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Herbig says their father fostered a competitive household that “made us hate losing more than we love winning.”
“Anything in the world, you name it – cards, who could drink their water faster at dinner, who could eat their food faster, who could wash their clothes and fold it the fastest, just random stuff,” Herbig said. “Everything was who could do it the best. At the time, I wasn’t a big fan of it, but I know that it paid off.”
Herbig didn’t anticipate bringing that competitive spirit to Wisconsin.
“Honestly, at first, I was like, `There’s no way,’ ” Herbig said. “I didn’t even know where Wisconsin was.”
He had a change of heart after researching Wisconsin’s program and discovering the Badgers had a knack for shutting down Big Ten offenses each year.
“They always had good linebackers, they always had a great defense and a great culture,” Herbig said.
Herbig even helped recruit good friend Kamo'i Latu to Wisconsin when the former Utah safety entered the transfer portal this year. Latu and Herbig were teammates at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, the same high school that produced NFL quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa.
“Me and Nick, as kids, we looked up to Marcus Mariota, Tua, a bunch of other kids that came out of our high school,” Latu said. “We felt we needed to set a standard for our class, the class of 2020.”
Herbig also is setting a standard for Wisconsin’s defense.
He understands his responsibilities as the defense’s top returning playmaker. He remembers watching so many seniors from last year’s defense walk off the field disappointed after a loss at Minnesota that cost the Badgers a Big Ten championship game appearance.
“I kind of promised myself I’m never going to let something like that happen again,” Herbig said.
Herbig spent the offseason working on his leadership skills, realizing different players respond to different types of encouragement.
“The more vocal he gets the better, because he puts it all out there every day,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “He cares. He shows that. He wears his heart on his sleeve.”
He also carries his home-state pride with him.
Herbig occasionally brings a taste of Hawaii to Wisconsin, whether he’s cooking teriyaki dishes, sharing care packages or enjoying Spam musubi, a snack featuring a slice of Spam over a bed of rice and wrapped in seaweed.
“We had a good time, probably gained about 10 pounds each,” Herbig said.
Hawaii will always be part of his identity, but he’s found a second home up north. The two places have more in common than he ever expected.
“Faith, family and football – I find that’s huge here in Wisconsin,” Herbig said. “That’s big back home, too.”