Spring Position Preview: Safeties

Losing Aaron Henry to graduation and needing guys to step up into playmakers, the battle for the two starting safety spots and building quality depth will be as important as ever for the Badgers' defense.

MADISON - When the last piece of paper confetti fell to the plush natural grass and the last fan took one final peak at the San Gabriel Mountains, the difference separating the victors and the victimized in the 98th Rose Bowl was simple: defense.

Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl had a team average as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did against the Badgers in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards. The storyline in the week leading up to the game was how Wisconsin would be able to match the speed of Oregon. The results were obvious: they couldn't.

Much the blame falls on the front seven, but the last line of defense – the secondary – certainly deserves its fair share. Now with Aaron Henry graduated, the Badgers are looking at five guys to fill the starting and backup safety positions and provide some speed, athleticism and play-making abilities.

The two favorites to land the starting spots are senior Shelton Johnson and redshirt sophomore Dezmen Southward. Johnson (6-foot, 190) started 12 games last season after winning a fall camp battle, and was consistent when it came to making plays. Johnson finished with 54 tackles (23 solos), eight pass deflections and four interceptions, and made more good plays than bad … although his consistency was in question at times. Johnson is the most experienced player of the safeties (35 games played, 13 starts), and will need to play as such this season.

Next to Johnson is Southward (6-2, 200), who no longer can use his inexperience or injuries as an excuse. After overcoming wrist injuries early in his career, he finished with 35 tackles and two fumble recoveries last year, started three games (including the Rose Bowl) and is widely considered the fastest guy on the team.

Southward also has a reputation for being a hard-hitter and has play-making abilities, but the consistency factor is the one concerning issue with him. Southward has been playing organized football since 2008 and entering his fourth season, he'll be expected to do more.

After Johnson and Southward, the level of experience drops dramatically, all the more reason the Badgers need Johnson and Southward to be solid players. Behind the duo is redshirt sophomore Michael Trotter (6-0, 210), who played in 12 of 14 games last season but was hampered all season by a hamstring.

The one time state's Defensive Player of the Year, Player of the Year in Milwaukee and first-team all-state and all-area as a senior in high school, Trotter has the physical tools and the intelligence to be an All-Big Ten type player, but will need to put his injuries behind him and be prepared to contribute.

Also working into the mix is redshirt freshman Michael Caputo (6-1, 205). Redshirting last season to fully overcome a leg injury, Caputo has a ton of upside considering he was primarily an offensive player at West Allegheny (PA) High School and will benefit from more reps in camp.

As we addressed in the cornerback preview, the Badgers will apparently try Darius Hillary at the position to add some depth before incoming freshman D.J. Singleton arrives in June.

The Rose Bowl was an indication that Wisconsin needs more athleticism on the defensive side of the ball. This spring will be the first step in developing some of that speed.

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