There was no question that redshirt junior Marcus Cromartie was one of the most active players among the defensive backs in fall camp, registering countless interceptions and making more plays after getting more serious about the game. Cromartie was given that opportunity when senior Devin Smith was on the sideline with a lower abdominal strain. When Smith out, Bielema saw an opportunity to light a fire.
"Nobody has competed harder, in my eyes, than Marcus Cromartie amongst the DBs," Bielema said. "I told Devin, ‘Hey, you can sit out all you want. No.14 wants that spot,' and he's really going after it."
Smith was not immune to the workings around him, as he watched Cromartie make plenty of solid plays in his position from the sidelines. He also saw that Bielema listed him along with Cromartie as co-starters at the opposite cornerback position from senior Antonio Fenelus.
How fitting that Smith took that motivation and parlayed that into a solid opening game, leading the team with six solo tackles in a 51-17 victory over UNLV Thursday.
"I thought it was a good start for our defense," Smith said. "There's a lot more that we can work as a unit, but it was definitely a good start."
Although Smith doesn't need extra motivation in his heated competition with Cromartie, he relied on his amateur art skills to give him an extra push. Taking a plain gray t-shirt and a Sharpie, Smith drew some hands on the front of the shirt with the words ‘All in his hands' written on the front.
The words' meaning is directly attributed to Smith's faith, but he's not naïve with the fact that the words reflect that his performance in practice and in games correlates to his playing time as the season progresses.
"I know I have to go out there and put in the work and just not expect things to happen," Smith said. "Going out every single day with that mentality is important if I want to help the team this year. At the same time, I just can't worry about everything and just go out there and play with my God-given ability."
After starting all 13 games as a sophomore, registering 55 tackles and two interceptions in 2010, Smith played all 13 games as the team's starting nickel back, finishing with 30 tackles and an interception. Smith saw multiple reps in the Rose Bowl, a special experience for Texas-native that spent high school summers running laps around the Pasadena landmark.
But with his first two pass interference penalties called on him and the TCU offense seemingly passing at will at points, the memory provides a sour after taste.
"We definitely left with a sour taste in our mouth after the season ended so poorly, especially with all the work we put in to get to that point throughout the year," Smith said. "It's important to put the past in the past, but it's also important not to forget about it because you have to learn from your history."
It's that comment that has been the fuel to Smith and many of his teammates since January. When he returned from California, Smith spent time becoming a better student of the game, studying what offenses were giving him before and just after the snap and how to take advantage of those opportunities. He spent time reading receivers and how they ran their routes, hoping to gain an edge on when to and not to take chances.
He did that virtually every day during the summer. When he returned from his camp injury, the senior showed that his film study developed a new aggressive demeanor within himself, a style that is brand new to his game.
It will also be important to Wisconsin for Smith to become a constant playmaker. The Badgers finished sixth in the country with a plus-14 turnover margin last season, but couldn't manage to force a turnover in the opener.
With Smith consistently pushing himself to maintain his starting role, he knows it's important for him and his group to be playmakers. After all, it's all in their hands.
"We need to make sure we make the best of every opportunity," Smith said. "With the opportunities to make big plays, I definitely think our group has the potential of making a lot of big plays. We just have to make sure our technique is right, we are hitting the gaps right and we play clean and hard every game."