Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

The Badgers' secondary helped Wisconsin rank fourth in the nation in pass defense last season, but big plays marred Wisconsin's three losses. With three seniors projected to start, UW's secondary could be a big strength in 2012.

This is the seventh in a series of eight previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 30: Quarterbacks

July 31: Running backs

Aug 1: Receivers

Aug 2: Offensive linemen

Aug. 3: Defensive linemen

Aug. 3: Defensive linemen

Aug. 4: Linebackers

Aug. 5: Defensive backs

Aug. 6: Specialists

Projected starters: Marcus Cromartie (redshirt senior) and Devin Smith (redshirt senior) at cornerback; free safety Dezmen Southward (redshirt junior), strong safety Shelton Johnson (redshirt senior).

Key backups: Darius Hillary (redshirt freshman), Devin Gaulden (sophomore), Peniel Jean (redshirt sophomore) at cornerback; free safety Michael Trotter (redshirt sophomore), strong safety Michael Caputo (redshirt freshman).

The breakdown:

If plans had gone accordingly for Devin Smith, the Badgers would only have two projected senior starters in their secondary instead of three. But after a bad break, literally, Smith can stand back and recognize that the Wisconsin secondary is as strong as it's been in his successful tenure.

"We're pretty strong, but we have a long way to go," said Smith, who brings 39 career games and 16 starts to the cornerback position. "Working with the guys during the summer, we have a lot of chemistry out there, and we're motivated to get to where we want to be at the end of the year. We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country."

There are two sides to ever coin and Smith certainly has weighed the pros and cons after a foot injury in week two sidelined him for the rest of last season. The negative was certainly missing a chance to compete for the Big Ten champions and finish his career playing in a Rose Bowl; a stadium that had such special meaning to him and his family growing up.

It was also hard because Smith felt he was playing some of his best football at the time of his injury. The positive is that Smith is back, feels more experienced, feels he can help the Badgers get back to a championship level and will be able to graduate in December with a degree in business.

"I definitely think everything happens for a reason," said Smith, who says he'll ready to compete at 100 percent by the season opener on Sept. 1 against Northern Iowa. "I only have three credits in the fall, so I'll really be able to focus in on football. I learned a lot of different things. I am definitely developed a lot more physically and mentally."

Watching from the sidelines, Smith embraced the outside perspective of taking his first year off of football since he was approximately four. As he reflected on what he learned, Smith noticed different tendencies of receivers, different alignment issues and finite details of what an offense is trying to accomplish.

"I could look at different things that I needed to detail my game in and learn from to make myself a better football player overall," said Smith.

Wisconsin is hoping that Smith can add to his knowledge base as a fifth-year senior, making him one of the top cornerbacks in the conference. Over the summer, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said that if Smith didn't get injured, the Badgers likely would have played for a national championship instead of losing two games on secondary break downs.

"I respect coach B a lot and I really appreciate the comment," said Smith. "It's hard to say what would have or wouldn't have happened if I was injured, but I think Cromartie did an exceptional job taking over the position and making a lot of plays out there."

Cromartie did play well after battling Smith all fall camp and started the season as the co-starter opposite Antonio Fenelus. Cromartie ended up starting the final 13 games of the season and made 47 tackles with three pass breakups, but was the victim of some misalignments, missed tackles and coverage gaffs that cost UW some big plays last season.

"We can't give up big plays, especially scoring big plays," said Bielema. "No matter what happens, we can't let people get into the end zone. We need to be the same team we are in big games that we are in every game."

While both Cromartie and Smith should anchor each cornerback position, the Badgers have plenty of depth behind them with Gaulden (who overcame a stress fracture suffered during summer to play in six games), Hillary (who is athletic enough to compete at cornerback or safety) and Jean, who played in all 14 games last season as the team's nickel corner and raised eyebrows with his work ethic over the summer.

"He's a very smart player and he got a lot of playing experience last year when I was injured," Smith said of Jean. "Normally freshmen don't get that kind of playing experience, so to get that experience will be very beneficial for us. He'll be able to come in right away and have that confidence. He'll be a special player."

Not only do the Badgers' two starting cornerbacks have experience, Bielema said Wisconsin's safeties - Johnson and Southward - could be the best tandem he has ever had. That's a bold statement from Bielema, who has coached three safeties that are currently earning NFL paychecks.

Johnson and Southward are two of the fastest and most athletic players on the team, but they've spent the spring and summer refining their technique and their chemistry with one another. Johnson intercepted a pass in three of the team's final four games to go along with 54 tackles, and is approaching his season with a sense of urgency.

Southward is set to replace departed senior Aaron Henry at free safety and brings a natural athleticism with him. Not playing organized football until his senior year of high school at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Southward is one of the fastest players on the team and showed in spring that he is one of its hardest hitters.

"He's probably had a big of jump on our team as anybody on our team, maturity and physically," said Bielema. "Dez physically is like a Greek god. He's as good physically as we got. I just know he's tried to take a huge step on the academic side of football. Dez is a very smart kid and he's trying to apply that to the football game. Hopefully that's going to work.

"He knows he has big time potential, and now he has molded it to take that next step to be a dominant safety. He's 6-2, 215 pounds and can a 4.3 40-yard dash. He's ready to take that next step mentally. He wants to make his own mark in 2012."

Even with the Johnson-Southward connection appearing to be set in stone, the Badgers have depth with Trotter (who backed up Aaron Henry last season) and Caputo and won't be afraid to insert both players if there are problems.

The Badgers ranked fourth nationally in pass defense last season, allowing only 163.4 passing yards per game, but eight of UW's opponents ranked No. 80 or worse in passing offense, including four that were No. 104 or worse.

The only top-50 passing teams the Badgers faced were Oregon State (No. 19) and Michigan State (No. 41). Wisconsin held the Beavers to 261 passing yards on 27-for-41 passing, but the Spartans completed 44 of 61 passes (72.1 percent), for 571 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception in two contests.

With three projected senior starters and plenty of experience in their depth, the Badgers are pushing the envelope to make sure the last line of defense lives up to Bielema's proclamations.

"We made a huge push since January to where we are now on the academic side of football," said Bielema. "We want to be smarter football players."

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