It takes a lot to surprise Cole Van Lanen.
The senior offensive tackle and preseason AP All-American for the University of Wisconsin football team has blocked some of the best edge rushers the Big Ten Conference has had to offer, including the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft last season, Ohio State’s Chase Young.
So when he says his eyes were opened by teammate Nick Herbig, a freshman outside linebacker, it means something.
“Even in camp going against him, I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Came on strong, came on fast,” Van Lanen said this week. “I love his effort level. I think he’s going to be a really good football player; I think he’s already a good football player.”
Herbig has been turning heads since he arrived on campus. Heading into a pivotal midseason game for No. 10 UW (2-0) at No. 19 Northwestern (4-0), slated for 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC, Herbig has been a welcome surprise on a defense needing to find the next in line at outside linebacker. He’s tallied six tackles, including a team-leading four tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup in two college games.
“I've been pleased, obviously, with the start that he's had. And you know when you talk to Nick, and when you're around Nick, he's probably the one guy that's not real pleased with it,” UW coach Paul Chryst said.
“He expects a lot out of himself, yet I think he's realistic and knows there's a lot to learn and really just wants to be a contributor. I've loved his approach, his work ethic. Each day, not just each game, but each day is a good day for him and it's a chance to continue to improve. We're certainly glad that he's with us.”
Even if he’s not happy with his first two games, Herbig has given fans, coaches and teammates reasons to believe he’s a future star of this defense — and that that future is rapidly approaching.
“I see him get sacks and stuff and I knew it was coming,” Van Lanen said. “I’m just excited. Excited for what he’s going to do this year and excited for what he’s going to do later on.”
Growing up fast
Herbig came to UW uniquely prepared for college life.
Yes, there were the requisite adjustments to classwork and football, but Herbig had already done what some say is the hardest part about getting settled into college. In order to attend Saint Louis School — a football powerhouse in Honolulu, Hawaii — he had to move away from his parents in his hometown and home island of Kauai.
Herbig lived with his grandparents while in high school, a path his brother, Nate, also followed.
“I had to grow up a lot faster because they weren’t there,” Herbig said of his prep career. “But my grandparents were still great, my Poppa and Gram, they took care of me. But I do think there was a stage where I had to say, ‘OK, I’m on my own now. I need to tighten up.’
“It helped me transition to college earlier because I knew what it was like to be without my parents.”
Herbig was part of four state championship teams under coach Cal Lee and said the decision to go to Saint Louis was the best he could’ve made and it helped shape him into who he is today.
Lee said Herbig’s family was a special one that was able to stay close despite the circumstances.
“I’ve told him, ‘You have some good parents,’ and that’s a reflection on the boy,” Lee said. “How he was brought up and those parents, I love those parents because they sacrificed a lot for him.”
UW defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield played for Lee in a high school all-star game in the mid-90s, and that relationship connected Breckterfield with Herbig in the recruiting process. Herbig eventually committed to UW during his official visit in June 2019.
The maturity that Herbig developed during high school helped him navigate the pandemic-altered school and football calendar throughout the spring and summer. He trained with his brother Nate — a starting guard for the Philadelphia Eagles who went to Stanford — before returning home after campus closed in the spring. He returned when UW reopened for football players in June.
He said he tried to keep calm when the Big Ten season was canceled and then revived.
“It was definitely a rollercoaster of emotions. We’re getting excited, we’re about to play our first game, the schedule game. ‘OK, it’s finally happening, we’re here.’ And then they cancel the season so we’re like, ‘Oh …’ I didn’t really know how to feel about it,” he said.
“But I was just keeping a positive mindset, keep working out every game, because like I said, throw the ball out and we’ll go play. It just so happened that we could play, we’d been training this whole time, we just kept working and grinding hard, kept pushing each other every day so we were ready to play.”
When the Badgers began practices this fall, Herbig quickly made a name for himself with his effort.
“He has the skill set, but in a young player you don’t always see that consistent competitiveness and that physical nature play in and play out,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “I’ve really enjoyed him and what he brings to the practice and what he brings to this team.”
Those traits started at home.
Herbig’s older brothers, Jake and Nate, made him fight for everything. Their dad, Bruce, was a two-sport college athlete and didn’t give his sons an inch athletically, Herbig said.
“I think it started with my dad because my dad never let us win anything when we were younger. Not basketball, not football, like … my dad never let us win anything. Obviously my brothers aren’t going to let me win,” he said. “Everything in our house was a competition, so I definitely think that helped me mold into the man that I am today.”
Lee saw the competitive fire right away in Herbig.
“He just had this relentless attitude about playing the game he loved. These are things that you teach the kids about playing to the whistle and playing hard every single play, and he was a kid that I never really had to tell him much about lining up and getting ready because he was always ready to go,” Lee said.
“We have a whistle and the whistle means to stop — sometimes I’d blow the whistle a little bit early because he was one of those that kept on going.”
Carrying on a tradition
About a week before the Badgers opened their season against Illinois, Herbig learned he’d be in the starting lineup. He was filling the role vacated by Zack Baun, who continued UW’s pipeline of putting linebackers into the NFL this spring when he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints.
Herbig hasn’t spoken directly about NFL dreams yet, but said he’s working to be the next great Badgers linebacker.
“I’m blessed to be here. I’ve been working for this my whole life,” he said. “I dreamed about this my whole life, I’ve been working my whole life, now I’ve finally got the opportunity and that’s all I needed. So I mean, I’m not trying to be cocky in any way, but I’m not surprised I’m here because I put the work in.”
Humility is important to Herbig. It was a quality that senior safety and team captain Eric Burrell said he saw in Herbig when he visited campus and convinced him that Herbig would be a good fit in UW’s program.
“We’re here to make plays, we’re supposed to make plays, it’s nothing special. Everybody is kind of well-grounded in that and that’s a credit to the coaches,” Herbig said.
“My dad always told me, ‘Be humble and walk with God.’ So I try my best every day to be humble and walk with God. Because I mean, it’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t want to be out here bragging about this and that. I just like to keep it to myself, staying cool, staying calm, keep making plays and doing what I do.”