Fall Camp Preview: Secondary

The eighth of our nine-part series, Badger Nation breaks down each position in the first Wisconsin fall camp of the Gary Andersen era. Today we examine the secondary, the one position that has the most question marks for Wisconsin heading into the season.

This is the eighth in a series of nine previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 5 start of practice.

July 28: Quarterbacks

July 29: Running backs

July 30: Receivers

July 31: Tight ends

Aug 1: Offensive Linemen

Aug 2: Defensive Linemen

Aug 3: Linebackers

Today: Defensive backs

Aug. 5: Specialists

Projected Starters: Cornerback Darius Hillary (redshirt sophomore) and Peniel Jean (redshirt junior); safety Dezmen Southward (redshirt senior) and Michael Trotter (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Devin Gaulden (junior), T.J. Reynard (sophomore), Sojourn Shelton (freshman), Hugs Etienne (redshirt freshman), Michael Caputo (redshirt sophomore), Leo Musso (redshirt freshman), Jeff Lewis (redshirt junior)

Departed players: Cornerback Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith and safety Shelton Johnson (graduation), Reggie Mitchell (transfer), Donnell Vercher (denied admissions)

The breakdown

Entering spring practices, the Badgers coaching staff knew they were going to have to break in two new starters at cornerback and find a starter opposite Southward at safety. UW thought Mitchell would be that player after a solid spring made him the number one strong safety heading into fall, but the redshirt freshman became homesick and surprisingly transferred back home to Pittsburgh.

That was the first blow to UW's depth. The second was when incoming junior college player Vercher was denied admissions to Wisconsin, taking another potential starter out of the mix.

The loss of depth makes the play of Southward even more important. The only returning starter from the secondary last season, Southward tallied 69 tackles with eight tackles for a loss and an interception. The goal this fall for the UW coaches is to find a player who can elevate some pressure off of Southward to allow him to thrive in the defense.

The natural guess on who the first player will be to fill that spot is Trotter, who started three games a year ago. Trotter struggled at times during his fill-in stint, but still finished the year with 24 tackles. Trotter will be able to make the right calls at safety but needs to improve his athleticism and speed to become the full time starter.

If Trotter can't do the job done, one possibility could be Lewis who switched positions from running back to safety in the spring. Lewis could be the athletic safety Gary Andersen is looking for, but it all depends on how quickly Lewis can adjust to the safety position. Andersen has had previous success switching running backs and converting them into members of the secondary. Andersen was able to convert Curtis Marsh while he was at Utah State and Marsh is now entering his third season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Andersen may find success again with Lewis and get him on the field in some capacity as the season progresses.

While Wisconsin figures out its safeties, the Badgers feel they have their starting cornerbacks. Hillary and Jean have plenty of experience between both of them - combining to appear in 33 career games.

Jean saw time as the teams nickel back as a redshirt freshman in 2011 and was expected to reprise that role last season before breaking his foot at the conclusion of fall camp. Jean out opened the opportunity for Hillary to play nickel throughout last year, finishing with 23 tackles and had two pass deflections.

While the group is young, the Badgers will benefit by changing their philosophy from a bump-and-run coverage to more press coverage, doing away with the days where UW's corners would play upwards of five yards off the line of scrimmage.

"It disrupts them," Jean said during the spring of the new coverage. "Playing off the line, they have a lot of leeway to do stuff in front of you and just react to the ball. Now it's all about getting a hand in their face and being able to run with the receiver."

Unlike the safety spot, it appears the Badgers have depth at cornerback. Gaulden has been touted since he arrived three years ago, but has struggled to stay healthy because of knee problems. If Gaulden can stay healthy, he could end up challenging for the nickel job.

Stating that all junior college players his program recruits will get a chance to compete for playing time, Andersen will give Reynard a chance to show his abilities, especially since the JUCO has experience at both corner and safety.

Shelton is another intriguing prospect. Graduating from high school a semester early, Shelton turned in a solid spring game and could play himself into a bigger role in the fall. While he may struggle when he goes up against the bigger and stronger receivers in the Big Ten, Shelton has been working to get his weight and strength up. Shelton will need to continue to get bigger but should be able to hold his own at the line of scrimmage if he can continue to add good weight.

Even with so many question marks, first year secondary coach Bill Busch is confident in his group this coming fall.

"The first thing that they've done is their care factor is off the charts," Busch said during the spring. "Everything they do they care about. Their mental effort is the same as their physical effort, which is great. They care, they work extra, they ask the right questions, all those things, so that's a big plus for me. That's what excited me the most about them right there. Nobody is afraid. They are a physical group. I don't have any concerns about them."

One Burning question: Who starts opposite of Southward?

The Badgers have options at the safety position but there isn't a lot of experience. Trotter will get his chance to show why he deserves the starting spot but I don't necessarily think he'll last as the full time starter. I think he'll win the spot out of camp due to his experience, but I have a feeling as the season progresses someone else may step up and over take Trotter at safety.

Biggest Strength: Cornerbacks. Even though there are question marks heading into fall camp with the corners, the group has a chance to be a real strength of the defense. Even though Jean and Hillary haven't started a game for Wisconsin they still have seen significant action. For Wisconsin, it's about the duo staying healthy and getting more games under their belt. As the season progresses Jean and Hillary confidence will only continue to grow.

Biggest Problem Area: Creating turnovers. The Badgers were able to generate eight interceptions a year ago but Smith had four of them. Who is going to step up and help create turnovers for the defense? Southward is the only player returning to the secondary that had an interception a year ago and he only has one.

Final thought: For the last few seasons, the secondary has been the one area of weakness for the Badgers, getting beat on deep passes two seasons ago and getting torched by the wheel route in games last season. If the Badgers can find answers to the question marks in the secondary it could help keep the Badgers in games and take this team to another level.


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