Light Years Ahead

If he would try to compare the production through eight practices this spring ball with last year through eight practices, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash couldn't do it. Entering the second year under his watch, the Badgers' defense is well ahead of last year's pace, which has Ash excited for the fall.

MADISON - If you wanted two examples of toughness, you should have been at Wisconsin's spring practice last week and paid close attention to defensive coordinator Chris Ash. For one thing, Ash was one day removed from knee surgery – ‘a little meniscus repair' he called it – and was hobbling around coaching and teaching. The other part was that he didn't take mistakes lightly.

Arguably the most vocal assistant on UW's staff, Ash is entering his second year as the defensive coordinator/secondary coach at Wisconsin and it looking to build a unit that returns six starters, not including a number of players that provided key contributions last season.

After Monday's practice, Ash talked with Badger Nation about the strides he's hoping to make in year two, about the secondary and who he's looking at to be the heart of his defense.

What's the big thing you are looking forward to building on from your first year as defensive coordinator? What's the big jump you want to make?

Ash: Well, I've been around so I know the players. I knew them before I was coordinator and I know them still. The biggest thing we're trying to get is improve our football I.Q., just understanding football, understanding situations, learning our defensive scheme better and playing with consistency. I think to this point through eight practices, we keep getting better. The true test will be this fall when we start playing games. Comparing to where we are at through eight practices to last spring through eight practices, there is no comparison. We are light years ahead of where we are at. Guys understand the system better, react better, are playing with better fundamentals and I am happy with our progress.

How did you grade out your defense in Saturday's scrimmage?

Ash: I would give them maybe a B. We did several things good, but there were several plays that we didn't execute right that hurt us. With our 1s, we had three big plays throughout the course of the scrimmage. We can't have that because those plays could cost us a game. I don't want those things to overshadow all the good things we did, but they were glaring and they cost us a lot of yards. Those are the things we are really trying to stress to the guys is we have to be consistent in our execution. That was a problem for us last year at times and it came up Saturday, too. That was disappointing.

Is there any position group that you look at and you're comfortable with the personnel or is every group still in flux?

Ash: I wouldn't' say we are in flux with personnel, but depth is a concern. We have to develop depth. We are only going to be as good as our two deep because nobody is going to make it through 14 games healthy the whole time, so we'll need depth at every position. Those are the concerns that we are trying to work on and develop right now.

What group do you think has the strongest depth right now?

Ash: I don't know. It depends who shows up in the fall healthy and at 100 percent. We had a lot of guys with offseason surgeries and we'll have to see how they respond and come back from that. If anybody responds and is at full speed, I think we have good depth at both defensive line and linebacker.

Talk about your secondary a little. It seems Marcus Cromarite, Peniel Jean, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward are your four starters right now because of their experience. Have you seen a lot of strides from them?

Ash: They have all made improvement. They are all a year more experience, in the system for another year and understand things a lot better. They react a lot faster and understand the expectations of the defensive backs in this system. So far, I have been pleased with the play of those guys this spring.

How have you liked the strides Peniel Jean has made at the corner position? It looks like he is probably in line to be your starting nickel cornerback.

Ash: He comes to work every day. I could say that about a lot of guys, but PJ comes with a serious attitude. He's coachable, he wants to learn and he is consistent every single day with the way he works and the way he approaches his responsibilities. That's allowing him to get better.

Although you have Mike Taylor out at linebacker, how important is it having Chris Borland available to you this spring, especially since participating in spring practices has been a problem area for him in the past?

Ash: Well, we need him to be the heart and soul of our defense. Our scheme is set up for our mike and will linebackers to make a lot of tackles, like they did a year ago. He is a special player. One of the best linebackers I have ever been around and I am excited to see him play at full strength this fall. He's a guy we've got to keep healthy, but he has really developed this offseason just with his I.Q. and understanding the system. When he is out there, he plays fast. It's a whole different deal when he is out there.

Kevin Claxton was very serviceable for your linebackers last year and it looks like Conor O'Neill and A.J. Fenton have been sharing reps with the ones at that spot. How do you like how those two have taken strides?

Ash: Both of them have done some good things in their own right. It's a good battle between those two. Ethan Armstrong will be in the mix in the fall having played quite a bit, but I'm happy with what those two guys have done through eight practices. There have been ups and downs with both of them, but there have been a lot more ups. If they continue to improve over the next seven practices, I'll like where they are at heading into the fall.

When are you hoping to get Armstrong back and are you confident that his hip problems are behind him?

Ash: He'll be ready to go for summer workouts. You never know (if the issues are behind him) until he starts practicing, but right now he's right on schedule to be back at full strength for summer workouts.

Who do you think the leader of your defense is going to be among the players?

Ash: No question Chris Borland is the leader, but a lot of it has to do with his personality, that he's played a lot and that he's been a productive player. He's the first one that will stand out as the leader of the defense and you want your mike linebacker to be that guy.

What's the big goal you want to accomplish this week in preparation for your second scrimmage on Saturday?

Ash: Just consistency, which is the theme of the spring and isn't any different from scrimmage one to scrimmage two to the spring game. Just execute the responsibilities with consistency. If we do that, we'll be hard to beat because I think we have some pretty good players on defense. As long as we are doing the right things at 100 percent every single snap, we'll be hard to beat.

How have Ben Strickland and Andy Buh fit into your defensive staff with you and Charlie? How has the chemistry grown between you four?

Ash: Chemistry is great. Dave Huxtable was great when he was here and Ben Strickland has been here. There is nothing new about Ben. He just has a new title on his door, and he's been very involved with coaching responsibilities and game planning. I've known Andy Buh for several years and he is a great teacher and a great coach. He's going to continue to build on the things Huxtable built last year. He's not Dave Huxtable, he's Andy Buh, and he's going to coach a little different. The end result though is going to be abound improvement.


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