Although he showed plenty of athleticism in the secondary for St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), leading the Raiders to a national high school championship his senior year, Southward was transitioning from the hardwood to the football field, as his last high school season was his first in organized pads.
Throw in the fact that Southward had surgery immediately upon arriving to campus on his right wrist to fix an old basketball injury, the speedy 6-foot-2 safety was forced to learn the game of football was a gigantic club on his hand.
"It was real frustrating because I couldn't go out there and be myself," Southward said. "I haven't had both my hands in healthy in three years."
Southward went through two surgeries to correct the problem but the result was Southward's mind being overloaded and his confidence shaken. So when he jumped offsides multiple times on kickoff coverage one day, UW coach Bret Bielema decided it was best to give a year of seasoning to Southward. Still, the raw talent remained.
"If you lined up all our guys and had them sprint 40 yards, Dez would probably win it," Bielema said. "He's incredibly gifted."
One of those gifts was showcased during last fall camp when Southward was matched up with freshman Kraig Appleton. Despite giving up at least three inches to the once highly-touted recruit, Southward out jumped Appleton on consecutive passing routes, registering a pass deflection and an interception.
Southward overcame the club so when he suffered two torn ligaments in his left thumb during a summer workout drill this season, there was no discouragement.
"I knew that when I get my hands back, I would be a much better player," Southward said.
With his wrist finally fully healed heading into this season's fall camp, Southward, just wearing a protective brace, has finally been able to contribute. Playing on kickoff or punt return in all eight games for the Badgers, Southward has recorded five tackles, including a solo stop against Michigan State.
"It was great to be out there," Southward said. "I thought it would be a lot tougher than it was, but football is football. I learned that, and I was just ready to get a feel for what college football is like and keep moving forward."
Southward has also become Aaron Henry's backup at free safety, a position he was shifted to during fall camp from cornerback. It was a humbling move, seeing as safeties are viewed as the generals of the defense, but a move that instilled confidence in the redshirt that the coaches trust him to do the job.
"The fact that I can be in the middle of the field and use my athleticism a lot more helps," Southward said. "I am not scared anymore of being loud and confident after working with Aaron and Jay Valai. Those guys have gotten me ready fast. I feel like I have learned a lot."
Part of the work ethic was instilled before even coming to Wisconsin. At Aquinas, the Raiders demand perfection, and Head Coach George Smith and his 353 wins usually gets it. The Raiders have won five state championships and 26 district championships, including the last 13 in a row. With the amount of conditioning and spring football work, it's almost like another college program.
"St. Thomas has great intensity and it helps prepare you for this level, where guys have intensity combined with a crazy skill level," Southward said. "That makes it that much more important and that much more fun when you play and do well."
Watching Henry, the biggest lesson isn't about technique or footwork, it's about readiness. Henry saw firsthand how an injury can affect the team and how quickly somebody needs to step in and play at a high level. After Henry's freshman year ended with a torn ACL in bowl prep, he never was the same cornerback, eventually losing his starting job again after a redshirt season and then finding a new home at safety this season.
With every practice bringing new confidence in the raw prospect, it's only a matter of time before his athleticism starts to breakthrough.
"The big thing is the games are just like practice," Southward said. "If I can take it over from the game, then I'll be fine."