Spring Football Preview: Secondary

Starting today, Wisconsin football begins its run to the 2012 Rose Bowl with five straight weeks of spring football. In preparation for the camp, Badger Nation has broken down the seven positions over the past seven days. Last but not least, we examine the secondary.

MADISON — Perhaps no Wisconsin football position unit took more heat for the depressing 2008 season than the secondary.

Missed tackles pervaded the position group. Big plays were given up routinely. It seemed that every fan would expect the worse, and somehow the corners and safeties couldn't even meet those expectations. The position group was in shambles.

Things got a little better in 2009, with Chris Maragos providing some desperately need leadership and playmaking to the group. Still, the secondary qualified as the weak link of defense, with much of the humbling Northwestern defeat to conclude the regular season falling on their shoulders.

Finally last season, the 2008 puzzle took some form with new secondary coach Chris Ash arriving.

Ash had a simple message for the players when he arrived in the fall:

"Everyone is accountable"

"How do you hold them accountable?" Ash mused when pressed for details. "You stress the details and the little things, and it's the constant feedback, the constant coaching to reemphasize and reinforce the points you're trying to make. The goods, the bads, everything you see and that's just how I have been brought up. Evolving as a coach, I don't believe in sitting back and waits to the meeting room to coach things. I like to coach up tempo, get after things and be enthusiastic. That's just the way that I have done it."

It worked. UW's secondary cut down immensely on the big plays and became willing tacklers.

No player improved more over the course of the season than Aaron Henry, who after switching from corner to safety, took the title from Jay Valai as the unit's hardest hitter.

"That felt pretty good, actually, that felt real good," Henry said.

"I think people kind of have their head on a swivel for Valai. And nobody really knows too much about me back there, so if I can get some I am definitely going to get my opportunities and take advantage of them."

With Henry the lone starting safety returning this spring, he won't be an unknown any longer.

The position battle worth watching most will be the safety starting opposite Henry.

The two candidates it will most likely to come down to — though as now-defensive coordinator Ash will note, he is not assuming anything — have each had one moment to shine.

Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward helped save Wisconsin's season with their special teams hustle against Arizona State. For those with unfortunately short memory's, Johnson and Southward made the play of the game, and perhaps the season, when they chased down Sun Devil kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks and brought him down one-yard before the end zone with time expiring in the first half.

"I have brought up and emphasized to those guys — I have been in college football since 1992 — and every season I reflect back on, whether it is a special season, so-so or whatever, there is a handful of plays that determine a game, which determine a season," UW Coach Bret Bielema said.

Now it will be up to Johnson and Southward to play with that level of energy consistently. Unless redshirt freshman Michael Trotter makes a surprise push — not out of the question for anyone who watched the Racine native play in high school — one of them will be starting opposite Henry next season.

At corner back, the starting position opposite Antonio Fenelus will be Devin Smith's to lose.

Smith played in every game last season as the nickel back, with his role growing late in the year as the Badgers played more spread offenses. It will be the second chance Smith has to start after getting on and off starts his sophomore year.

Marcus Cromartie, a fourth-year junior in the program, will have a chance to prove whether the talent that runs in his family — two relatives are in the NFL — will blossom in him as well.

Most importantly, however, Ash will have the spring to build on what he has started.

In just one season he completely turned the position group around.

Think what he can do now that he has the reins.

"Anytime you have success, it starts with chemistry and leadership, and all of us on defense have known each other for a long time," Ash said. "We've come up through the college ranks together, started our coaching career together and have a lot of the same beliefs, thoughts and ideas of how we want to coach and teach. I think that bond has carried down to the players.

"We can complement each other. We can almost finish each other's sentences when it comes to football. It's been a good experience."

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