Not Feeling Cross

In his first season on the Wisconsin coaching staff, special teams and safeties coach DeMontie Cross has seen significant breakdowns in both of his units the last two weeks, forcing him to evaluate personnel and emphasize communication to fix the problems.

MADISON - To say it's been a tough transition for DeMontie Cross to the University of Wisconsin coaching staff would be a bit of an overstatement. Let's just say it's been a challenge at points.

After five seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Cross returned to the college game when he was hired at Purdue, only to leave one month later when an opening appeared on Bret Bielema's staff, ruffling Boilermakers head coach Danny Hope in the process.

He's suffered a torn MCL when cornerback Antonio Fenelus ran into him on the sideline and been putting off the surgery until after national signing day in February.

He's been responsible for a special teams unit that has been without its senior kicker and seen three kicks blocked and a safety position that has dealt with numerous injuries to both strong safeties. So, one can understand that as the days get closer to No.19 Wisconsin hosting Purdue on Saturday, Cross is excited to see if his units can rebound with a stronger performance.

"You want all the hard work your guys put in each week to come out and make it a good product," Cross said. "You learn from the corrections and the mistakes and try to put the next best game plan for the next opponent."

In his first season as special teams coordinator and safeties coach, Cross has seen his special teams unit give up punt blocks in back-to-back weeks and his safeties miss communicate on a 40-yard touchdown pass that have resulted in Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) losing back-to-back games for the first time since October 2009.

"The biggest thing is that you have to learn as coaches just like the players do," Cross said. "You make the corrections. It's unfortunate those situations were big plays in the circumstance of the game."

In the past two weeks, a breakdown on the right side of Wisconsin's shield punt formation has led to a huge momentum swing for the opponents. Against Michigan State, reserve offensive lineman Robby Burge failed to block Kyler Elsworth coming from the edge, resulting in a clean block and the Spartans recovering in the end zone for a 23-14 lead before halftime. Michigan State won the game 37-31.

Against Ohio State, Burge blocked the inside rusher instead of his assigned outside assignment. Again, the result was a blocked punt, this time by Ryan Shazier, and an OSU touchdown after recovering the ball on the one-yard line.

Punt return is run by defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and the unit has been successful. In 112 punts since the formation was implemented in 2009, Wisconsin has had only three punts blocked with the two this season being the only ones that resulted in negative yardage. Nortman had a punt partially blocked against Minnesota in 2009 that traveled 34 yards and was downed at the Gophers' 5-yard line.

"Nobody works harder than Coach Partridge," Cross said. "He knows exactly what he's doing. He just has to get it through to the players, make sure the execution is what we are looking and the biggest thing is the assignments. We've had a couple breakdowns by guys not being disciplined.

"Until you fix the problem, you'll always see the same look or something from an opponent until you fix it. We feel like we've got it fixed and our biggest test will come Saturday."

One of those fixes is a change in personnel. According to Cross, UW has inserted sophomore defensive tackle Beau Allen into the formation in place of Burge, who will work next to defensive tackle Ethan Hemer on the left and offensive line Ryan Groy in the middle.

"You have to wipe the slate clean, prepare for Purdue and try to make sure the same thing doesn't happen (again)," he said.

Cross has also dealt with fractured confidence in the secondary. On the final offensive play against the Buckeyes, the secondary was supposed to adjust into ‘quarters' coverage (four defensive backs spread throughout the formation) after Ohio State gave the defense a different look.

Safety Shelton Johnson and cornerback Marcus Cromartie didn't get the call or didn't execute properly, resulting in Johnson drifting across the formation mirroring quarterback Braxton Miller and vacating his zone. Cromartie was covering his zone and couldn't get to the wide-open receiver in time to make a play, resulting in a touchdown and a 33-29 defeat.

"It was a miscommunication between the safety and the corner, which technically falls on all the defensive backfield," Cross said. "We had a guy get a signal, another guy didn't, and that's been a big emphasis for us all season, but especially this week. We want to get back to making sure we have a visual and verbal communication."

This week has been business as normal. Cross went through the film to clean up the mistakes on Sunday and said the slate was going to be wiped clean heading into this weekend's conference game, the first step for the unit to go back in the right direction.

"It's a great group of kids," Cross said. "They have invested a lot. It's definitely tough to move on, but we have to put it behind us or it's going to cost us in the next game."


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