Packing a Wallop

He's one of the fastest runners, highest jumpers and hardest hitters on the fourth-ranked Wisconsin football team but for Dezmen Southward, who has had almost as many surgeries as years he's played football, it's about putting it all together in one successful package.

MADISON - As he stood ideally by a year ago watching him team go through preparations for the 2010 season, head coach Bret Bielema saw one of the main reasons he recruited safety Dezmen Southward.

In a violent collision with tight end Brian Wozniak, Southward popped up and jogged to the huddle. Wozniak needed help off the field and tests revealed he had a broken scapula; a type of injury that the team doctors said is an injury that usually occurred in car accidents because of the trauma.

"It was as big of hit I'd seen in fall camp since I'd been a head coach," Bielema said. "Dez has always been physical, sometime physical in the wrong spots. You don't always know where he is going to be (but) he can hit and can run."

The 6-2, 200-pound Southward is not the most experienced player on the football field, far from it actually. Only playing football since his high school senior year, Southward is just entering his four season on the field, but his play has caused arguments among his teammates about what he does the best.

In addition to his hitting, Bielema said if he lined up his entire team on the goal line and had them run to the other goal line, Southward would probably be the winner. Senior Aaron Henry acknowledges Southward's speed is a weapon but nothing beats his jumping ability. Doing box jumps in the summer, Henry estimates Southward did a 56-inch box jump, meaning Southward jumped and landed on top of a person that stood 4-8 flat footed.

"It's ridiculous," Henry said. "His speed and hitting ability is amazing but seeing him stand still and fly was absolutely ridiculous. The kid is an athletic freak, hands down."

The skills come from a lengthy basketball career, but the play on the football field has come from Southward ability to be a fast learner. Struggling his first two seasons with injuries, having wrist surgery on both hands, Southward has put himself into position to be a key contributor down the stretch.

"I am a basketball player at heart and any safety likes to hit somebody," Southward said. "I've come a really long way and have a long way to go. Everything that I have been working for is starting to come and it's showing me that I can play at this level."

With Devin Smith out for the season with an ankle injury, Southward has stepped into Smith's role in the ‘Badger' 3-3-5 defense. When safety Shelton Johnson went down with a calf injury, Southward stepped in to start the last two games, including the first career start on his 21st birthday against Nebraska.

There were no jitters on his part, as Southward finished with a career-high seven stops.

"He's gotten it mentally, been very communicative and been around the ball making plays," Henry said. "Dez is athletically gifted and puts himself in position. He went out (in the Nebraska game) and played his butt off. It's just a matter of when an opportunity presented itself that he would go in and take advantage, and it was a beautiful birthday present."

Southward was close to earning the starting job out of fall camp, a testament to his quick learning, and has made a huge impact in Wisconsin's secondary through the team's first six games, registering 20 tackles, two forced fumbles and two pass deflections. All of those numbers are far and away career highs.

"He's gaining knowledge and knowledge builds confidence," defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "The more reps he gets, the more knowledgeable he is going to get and the faster he is going to play on the field. He comes to work every day and has that daily improvement that is showing up for him on game day."

Up until the Nebraska game, Southward was best known for teaming up with Johnson to stop Arizona State kickoff returner Kyle Middlebrooks a yard short of the end zone on the final play of the half, a play that turned pivotal in Wisconsin's 20-19 victory last season.

Southward flashed his speed, coming from behind to slow Middlebrooks at the 20-yard line, before Johnson made the tackle, completing one of the best hustle plays in recent school history. Now the two are invoked in a healthy competition for playing time, pushing one another in the process.

"We are really close, just like the other DBs," Southward said. "There is no friction there and if I see Shelton doing something that he is a little better than me at, I'll ask him what he was thinking and what he saw. At the same way, he'll come at me and ask me things. We know that whoever is the best suited to play will play."

After two straight starts, Southward is expected to yield to Johnson, who is fully recovered from the calf injury sustained against South Dakota, when the Badgers travel to Michigan State Saturday. Southward knows he is going to play, a stark change from earlier this year when he didn't know what was going on.

Pushing himself through winter workouts in early January, Southward started vomiting late at night and felt a sharp pain on his right side. A phone call to one of the athletic trainers threw up a red flag and a trip to the emergency room revealed that Southward's appendix had burst.

Not only did Southward undergo an emergency appendectomy, he stayed in the hospital close to a week when he developed an abscess. Losing 20 pounds and put behind, Southward spent all spring trying to get to where he wanted to be physically.

After recovering from that, there doesn't appear to be anything that he can't leap over.

"I definitely felt like I could come in and do some things from spring and people thought I could be a great player here," Southward said. "I really felt coming into fall that if I wasn't starting, I would definitely be getting some reps and that's how it's panned out so far."

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