Not Backing Down

He's not the biggest dog in the fight, but senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus never lets his size become an issue. Starting the season with a solid performance against one of the best wide receivers in the Mountain West Conference, Fenelus showed that despite eight months off, he hasn't missed a beat.

MADISON - One of the top receivers in the Mountain West conference, UNLV senior Phillip Payne is a physical 6-3, 205-pound presence. Entering the 2011 season with 19 touchdowns in 32 career games, Payne, a preseason all-conference pick, is expected to finish his career in the top 10 in all of UNLV's receiving records, including the top spot in career touchdown receptions.

Wisconsin senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus could care less. Despite giving up four inches to Payne, Fenelus held the receiver to only two catches for 12 yards when he was matched up to his side. Even better, Fenelus held Payne, who caught all of four catches for 29 yards and one TD late, without a first-half catch despite the senior receiver being targeted four times, one of which was a fade route to the corner of the end zone that Fenelus out jumped Payne and forced a third-down incompletion. UNLV missed a field goal on the next play.

"I think he knows the height advantage that he has, so he has to understand the leverage," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "He's got great ball skills. He understands body position, leverage. He watches a bunch of film. He really has learned from some of the players in front of him that it's that film study that really is going to help you out in the end."

Fenelus has been on the rise ever since he came to Wisconsin as an unheralded, under-the-radar recruit out of Boca Raton (Fla) HS when he committed in January 2008. Although most schools passed him by because of his size and average speed (his only other scholarship was from Florida Atlantic), Fenelus impressed the UW coaching staff was his physical toughness.

"Every South Florida corner thinks they're Deion Sanders," Bielema said. "They've just got to believe that. But then once you get him here and you realize he has good speed, he has great toughness."

A true senior, Fenelus has played in 39 of UW's 40 games over the last four seasons, including 19 starts. Last season, Fenelus started all 13 games opposite cornerbacks Niles Brinkley and Devin Smith, registering career highs in tackles (56), pass deflections (11), interceptions (4) and fumble recoveries (2).

He was even named UW's co-defensive player of the week after returning an interception for a touchdown, recovering a fumble and matching his career high with nine tackles at Purdue last season.

"You can see his leadership start to rise," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. "When we missed a few plays, he was one of the first guys to try and rally the troops, calm them down and say, ‘guys, we just got to make the plays we are assigned to make.' That's when you see a guy really mature. You can tell how much it means to him right now."

Maturity hasn't always been there for Fenelus. Although his ability allowed him to appear on special teams in 12 games in '08 and finished with 13 tackles as a true freshman, the ‘Deion Sanders' mentality caused Fenelus to frustrated that he wasn't the starting cornerback.

But after sit-down conversations with Bielema and growing up on and off the field, Fenelus stuck with the routine, and the benefits started to pay off down the stretch last season, including his complete performance against the Boilermakers.

"Last year, at the end of the year, I don't know if there was a corner that was playing as well as he was in our conference," Bielema said, "because he knows his weaknesses, he knows his strengths and knows how to play within our system."

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