An Aggressive Approach

With three seniors at his disposal in Wisconsin's secondary, first year safeties coach DeMontie Cross has had the luxury of building some depth and rotating some positions with the younger talented under his guidance.

MADISON - Coaching in the defensive backfield for almost 15 years, DeMontie Cross had always been able to avoid becoming part of the play, able to stay at more than an arm's reach to view, evaluate and teach. Senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus changed all that last Friday.

With senior quarterback Russell Wilson extending the play and Fenelus in one-on-one coverage, Cross got rolled up along the sideline with Fenelus, resulting in no problems for the cornerback and a torn a muscle off the inside of his leg for his position coach. No surgery will be needed, but it gives Wisconsin's first-year safety coach a glimpse at how aggressive the Badgers' secondary plans to be.

Cross talked to Badger Nation Wednesday about the players under his tutelage and the group's work on special teams.

BN: How are Antonio and Devin Smith been playing this camp. Both seem to be playing at a high level when they are out there and when they aren't, Marcus Cromartie seems to be pushing them?

Cross: Cromartie has been playing well and has stepped his game up with Devin missing some practices. Antonio is a stronger leader who shows up and works hard. He really takes advantage of his experience, more than anything, and that's a nice three-man rotation we have. The guy that continues to take advantage of all his reps has probably been Cromartie.

BN: Talk a little about Peniel Jean. After your top three corners, there is a drop off on the field in terms of game experience. It seems like Jean plays a little older than a redshirt freshman. How important is it to have a guy that is practicing like that to give you another potential option?

Cross: It's wonders for any coach. From the short time that I've been here, he's been a guy that has probably grown the most. In the spring, I wasn't sure just watching up but now that he's shown back up in this camp and had a good summer, he's really elevated his game enough to earn some reps with the defensive staff on game day. Hopefully he continues to play that way. He got nicked up and missed a few days, but he got right back and practiced the way he had been practicing, which is hard to do as a defensive back when you have a lower body. He's come to work each day.

BN: What are the dangers of having a true freshman on the field, especially at a vulnerable position like the secondary and especially in conference play?

Cross: I think any time you throw a true freshman out in any type of college atmosphere, they will be challenged. No matter the skill level, they will always be challenged and that's what happens when you are forced to play a guy. I think the Florida kid (Terrance Floyd) is as tough as nails and is a little bit more natural at the position, but (Darius) Hillary has really nice size and frame and has done well with the reps he's got with the twos. He got a few more reps than Floyd right now but in this, situation, you've got to prepare all the guys because you never know. We always tell them he's one play way from being in the two-deep and being on the field. Right now, we have to prepare those guys because we just didn't know.

BN: You talk about preparing guys. Is that one of the reason both Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward has played both safety positions for this camp?

Cross: Absolutely. Dez is pretty much locked into strong safety, but that's one of the reason we've had Shelton play a little bit of free safety because we didn't know who Henry's true solid backup would be. We felt it best to get some other guys some playing time. We felt he is the only guy right now that could handle both spots.

BN: Shelton certainly has the speed and the ability to be a jack of all trades. It's important to have a guy with experience, but can that be trumped some times by versatility?

Cross: Absolutely. He's done well. We've limited Henry's practice reps on some of the two-a-days, and Shelton has stepped in and tried to take some ownership with it because it's two different positions and different responsibilities with each position. He's adjusted well. He has enough speed and size to walk down in the box and enough range to cover the deep pass. I've been proud of the way he's worked. He had some ups and downs in the spring, but he's come back and accepted his role. He's really trying to separate himself from the other guy, but it's a two-man race and hopefully, one will really separate himself so we can name a starter.

BN: You've have thrown a lot of different bodies back there, including Michael Caputo and Josh Peprah. I am curious who you all are looking at and who has stood out?

Cross: The Caputo kid impresses you from a size and physical standpoint. His motor is quick and he plays at that speed and aggressively all the time. You like that from your players and he definitely excites you from a special teams standpoint, being able to put a guy in there with that size and speed that can run. Obviously, he's still trying to digest the packages and what we are trying to ask him to do in a defensive scheme, and that's where he's a little behind. The only way you learn is put him out there, so I'll sneak him out there from time to time.

Peprah has really done well this camp with Michael Trotter going down. He's stepped right up and tried to get into the two deep, get a spot and hold on to him. He's done well with his reps. He's still learning with a little bit of trial and error. He's shown up at every practice this fall and he's done a real good job for us. Coach (Bielema) likes to play the guys we think can play, so that's what we've done by rolling a bunch of guys in there in the twos and threes that we may think might have a chance. We put it on tape and try to coach them.

BN: As the special teams coordinator, talk about the strides you have made on special teams this fall?

Cross: It's nice to have Coach Partridge (punt) and Coach Rudolph (kick return) back coaching their two units, which need to be strengths for us. I am trying to strengthen the kickoff and the punt return. As soon as we can solidify who are returner can be, we'll go with them. There are some guys that have really stepped up like Bradie Ewins, Kyle Zuleger, Ethan Armstrong and Jacob Pedersen. Those few guys have really jumped off at me as guys that can be on all four units, guys that have taken pride of what has been asked of them.

BN: Is there any danger if you have a player like Jared Abbrederis or James White fielding the kicks because they play such an important part in the offense's success?

Cross: I think the head coach makes that decision and if one of those guys give us the best chance to win, we'll go with it. If he thinks we need to go with someone else because of that reason, then it filters down and we'll make adjustments, which is our job. We want to put the best guy out there, obviously, but we need to make the best decision for our team.

BN: Last spring you were going against stationary quarterbacks in Brennan and Budmayr. What's it like to go against a guy like Russell who can throw all sorts of things at you?

Cross: It helps because you can never rep that speed when you are working against scout team guys. All the work we are getting against him will pay off for us tremendously during the season. He extends the play. That's what he does. He's very crafty and skillful with his attributes throwing the ball and reading defenses. He's really helped the safeties, for sure, and the back row altogether. He definitely brings a different element that we welcome. I'm glad he's with us.

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