If the Badgers had to replace both Smith and first-team All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus, a group that was under the microscope last season would be the unquestioned weak point of the team in 2012. Now with the return of Smith, who redshirted after breaking his foot in week two last season, the Badgers have one piece to their secondary puzzle.
But while Smith with miss most of spring while he continues to finish up his rehabilitation, Wisconsin will look at redshirt senior Marcus Cromartie to take his biggest step forward. Cromartie (6-1, 188 pounds) was stuck in neutral through his first three seasons at Madison, playing in only 11 games his two eligible years. Last fall camp, however, Cromartie played well enough to be the team's starting nickel corner and eventually the team's starting corner after Smith went down.
He started the team's final 13 games and finished with 47 tackles and three pass deflections, but the problems he was knocked on his first three seasons – lack of focus, missed assignments – bubbled up at times last year and resulted in big plays for the opposition because of bad tackling or assignment mistakes.
Cromartie has all the tools – size, speed, athletic ability – that teams want in a cornerback but it really is now or never for the Texas native. Either he figures it out and puts it all together this season consistently, or the Badgers will likely turn to up-and-coming redshirt sophomore Peniel Jean.
Jean (5-11, 190) was an under-the-radar recruit nationally coming out of West Palm Beach, Fla., and was a big help last year in filling in after Smith's injury. Seeing time at nickel corner and at cornerback, Jean finished with 23 tackles and two pass breakups, but played his best at the end of the season, registering three tackles against Minnesota and Penn State and a career-high five against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game. He will see the field in some capacity, but the position battle between him and Cromartie will be ongoing through the fall.
Behind Cromartie, Jean and Smith is the Florida quartet, as sophomore Devin Gaulden (5-10, 190), redshirt sophomore Jameson Wright (6-1, 190), redshirt freshman Terrance Floyd (5-10, 200) and true freshman Hugs Etienne (5-11, 164) all hail from the Sunshine State and represent UW's young talent and depth at the position moving forward.
Gaulden, a one-time Auburn commit, had sights of coming in to play right away last season but a stress fracture in his leg cost him most of fall camp and the early part of the season. Gaulden was still adamant about playing, resulting him coming back too soon, finishing with only three tackles in six games of mop-up duty and virtually losing a year of eligibility.
Although he admitted to regretting the decision, Gaulden said the game experience and the opportunity to learn the defense has made him more comfortable heading into this spring with his sights set on the field.
Wright and Jamison have yet to see the field and were both recruited as raw prospects, meaning this spring will be key for them in building their knowledge for when Cromartie and Smith leave the program following next season.
Etienne is likely headed for a redshirt with him being undersized and inexperienced, but him being on campus early will likely benefit him the most of the three early enrollees.
"Hugs came to us and has put on a lot of weight," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "It's been a culture shock; his mom and dad are both Haitian. He comes from an environment that Wisconsin is, as good as we've had weather-wise here, it's still a lot different from the environment he came from. But he has really kind of opened my eyes, done a nice job during the winter conditioning, has been really good through these first (few) practices."
The one enigma of the group is redshirt freshman Darius Hillary. A two-way player in high school, Hillary gave up wide receiver and played so well in fall camp that he cracked the two-deep depth chart before UW decided to redshirt him and play Gaulden. Now, Bielema said that Hillary might see some reps at safety. Hillary is certainly athletic enough to play either the corner or the safety position, so the next three weeks will be key for the coaching staff to see where he best fits heading into the fall.