Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

With fall camp set to open tomorrow, Badger Nation breaks down each position for the 2011 season. With three seniors returning in the secondary, including the veteran Aaron Henry, Wisconsin's last line of defense should be a cohesive unit.

MADISON - Aaron Henry couldn't have been more frustrated or angry with Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. It wasn't personal, it was purely business, but Henry knew in his heart that he was a cornerback, not a safety.

Henry was recruited by Bielema and former defensive coordinator Dave Doeren out of Immokalee, Fla., and tabbed as the would-be leader of his freshman class and instant playmaker. In that instance, he didn't let his coaches down as a true freshman in 2007. He played in 12 games, started two, and totaled 38 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception.

That's was the high point. When Henry suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a practice prior to the Outback Bowl, that was his low point, especially when his relationship with Bielema started to strain.

"Me and Coach B, our relationship has never been really negative, but sometimes we didn't always see eye-to-eye on things," he said.

Henry was able to overcome the doubts he had of being able to recover from his knee injury, although it took longer than he wanted after making the tough decision to redshirt in 2008. The doubts whether he'd be an effective player were another story. Henry played in all 13 games in '09, but lost his starting job when his play was tentative and others were more effective.

He was shifted to nickel back, but Bielema wanted to make a bigger shift.

"I end up redshirting and he moves me to safety," Henry said. "I hated it. I was a cornerback my whole life, I wanted to be a cornerback my whole life, but as you guys can see, the guy is smarter than he looks."

With the help of secondary coach Chris Ash, who stressed the fine details while reinforcing every teaching point, Henry had a breakout season in 13 starts, leading the team in fumbles recovered, ranked second in interceptions and passes defended and was third in pass breakups. He also scored three touchdowns, two on interceptions and one on a fumble recovery.

"He definitely helped me take my game to a new level and I am definitely appreciative of that, especially moving me to a new position," said Henry, who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last year. "Coach Ash did a great job working with us last year. It's going to be his second year working with us and this guy is a genius. With all the things he has up his sleeve, he's going to put our defense in great position to make takeaways and make big plays."

Henry is now the vocal leader of the defense, and will rely on Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward to be solid contributors next to him. Both are remembered for their touchdown-saving tackle against Arizona State, tackling kick returning Kyle Middlebrooks at the one-yard line with time expiring in the first half. Wisconsin won that game by one point.

Johnson was a consistent contributor during spring football, but Southward appears to have the bigger upside. Although he has played organized football for just three years, Southward can run as fast, jump as high and play as hard as anyone else on the team. The battle for the starting spot will go deep into fall camp.

"I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there," Bielema said.

Bielema knows what he has in senior cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith. One of four Big Ten Conference players named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in the nation, Fenelus – who 18 career starts - was the Badgers' team leader in interceptions (four) and passes defended (11) as a junior, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's media.

Smith – 14 career starts - played in every game last season as the nickel back, with his role growing late in the year as the Badgers faced more spread offenses. This will be Smith's second chance to start, after getting occasional starts during his sophomore year, and it will be an opportunity for both him and Fenelus to make up for a below average showing in the Rose Bowl against TCU.

Marcus Cromartie, a fourth-year junior, will have the opportunity to show whether the talent that runs in his family — two relatives are in the NFL — will blossom in him, as well, not to mention overcoming an inconsistent spring. He's expected to be the team's nickel back, solely because the rest of the cornerbacks on UW's roster are young and without game experience. But with young, eager players comes fierce competition, the recipe for success as far as Henry is concerned.

"I think we're able to go out there and play tough on the ball every single game and put the secondary on the map," Henry said. "I truly think so, but that's not going to mean anything if we go out there, give games away, miss tackles and get beat deep. I think last year, we had so much competition that we had guys hungry and are still hungry, but it's a little bit different than it was last year. Since we lost to TCU, guys are just so amped to come back. I think this secondary could be one of the best in the country, but we've got to work."

The fall will always give Ash the ability to take a closer look at the plethora of young defensive backs the Badgers have recruited the last two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Josh Peprah has been working behind Henry at the safety position and is starting to find his rhythm, redshirt freshmen Peniel Jean is the furthest along of his age group that includes Frank Tamakloe, Michael Trotter and Jameson Wright because Jean has been the only one to stay healthy and true freshman Darius Hillary will get his first reps with the Badgers.

Devin Gaulden is also expected to be able to contribute down the road, but a leg injury that required surgery means he will not be with the team at the start of camp.

"The kid is a stud, man," Henry said. "He's probably one of the best I have seen since I have been here. He came in, was a real polished kid and I wouldn't be surprised if he starts for us sooner rather than later."

Badger Nation Top Stories