It was a clear emphasis by the Wisconsin coaching staff to rebuild the depth at the cornerback and the safety position. Understandable considering Wisconsin had to replace three scholarship cornerbacks and two scholarship safeties from last year’s team and signed only one scholarship defensive back in 2015.
On signing day, the Badgers made a strong statement to replenish their depth by signing three corners and three safeties who could impact the program sooner rather than later.
“Even with six we are still below the nation’s average for defensive backs, but we hope to gain in next year’s class and be set and have those numbers,” said secondary coach Daronte Jones. “You want between 17 and 19 defensive backs. The more nickel and dime you play the more you want and it kind of limited us this year...With depth comes competition, competition play rises.”
As the recruiting season progressed, it was clear what kind of corners head coach Paul Chryst and Jones were targeting, as the staff strongly desired athletes who brought size, length and the ability to recover.
“Receivers are getting bigger these days so you have to start recruiting bigger corners,” said Grand Prairie (TX) South cornerback Caesar Williams, who committed to UW Jan.26. “With my skill set and speed, the coaches were telling me that’s what they are looking for in there cornerbacks.”
Williams’ height fits that mold of the type of cornerback UW wants to start targeting. A rangy corner, Williams can make up a lot of ground if he does get beat off the line of scrimmage because of his size. He refers to his game as a “quick twitch corner who is sound in his technique.” More importantly he’s consistently striving to improve week to week. Williams’ technique will go a long way in helping him have an impact early in his career. As long as he can stay consistent throughout fall camp and quickly learn with what is being taught, he’ll have a good chance of being able to compete early.
Although Ke'Shan Pennamon doesn’t fit the larger size cornerback model on paper, his film shows he does play bigger than his size. Pennamon’s physicality at the line of the scrimmage has benefited his coverage skills, as he makes it challenging for receivers from getting a free release. Pennamon runs well and can keep up with his man to make sure passes can’t be completed. The one thing that could help Pennamon see the field early in his career is his versatility, as he has the ability to play anywhere in the secondary.
“He’s an inside-outside guy,” Jones said of Pennamon. “He’s a guy who can play as a nickel, and you know how much we play nickel in our conference and in our scheme. He can be a boundary corner; he can also play safety. But just in terms of if you have a chance to talk to him, he’s a very neat kid, his smile is kind of contagious, he enjoys playing the game of football, and anyone who enjoys playing the game of football, that’s a good start to be here at Wisconsin.”
Pennamon wasn’t the only Florida cornerback Wisconsin was able to lure out of the state, as the Badgers also snagged Dontye Carriere-Williams, a one-time Cincinnati commit from powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Carriere-Williams is the first player from St. Thomas Aquinas UW has signed since 2010 and the first defensive player since linebacker Conor O’Neill and safety Dezmen Southward in 2009.
Like Pennamon, Carriere-Williams isn’t the tallest cornerback but is a tremendous competitor. Winning three straight state championship to close his high school career, including the last two at STA, Carriere-Williams registered 41 tackles and two interceptions as a senior. When the football is up in the air, he shows the ability to go up and deflect attempts to make sure the intended target doesn’t have much of a chance of coming down for an easy catch. Carriere-Williams uses his hands well, can jam a receiver off the line of scrimmage to knock him off course and shows good closing speed to prevent players from getting up field.
Wisconsin was also able to go into Colorado to sign Deron Harrell to a grayshirt, becoming the first Colorado native to sign with the Badgers since Joe Monty in 2002. Harrell – like many smaller school’s best players – spent the season at quarterback and projects to play either corner or receiver.
During Chryst’s signing day press conference, he mentioned that Harrell could potentially enroll with the rest of the class this summer. Even if that is a viable option for Harrell, assuming scholarship numbers work, it might be smart for Harrell to stay as a grayshirt and enroll in January 2017. Harrell will need at least one season to adjust to the position and build his strength. Even though he played cornerback in high school (four interceptions as a senior), Harrell still might be two years away from contributing, so a grayshirt would save a year of eligibility.
Unlike the cornerback position, which has some veteran players to build around, Jones will be breaking in two new safety starters in 2016 and won’t have an experienced talent pool to pull from. The good news is Wisconsin signed three talented players at the position, including two kids from Maryland who could be early impact players in 2016.
Being able to attack the football in the air is something Jones was looking for in the class, as the secondary registered 11 of the team’s 12 interceptions last season, which tied for fourth in the Big Ten. Jones feels like he has two safeties in Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson who could contribute right away.
“They are the same because they attack the ball in the air,” said Jones. “The ball skills is what makes them the same, the athleticism is what makes them the same, the competitive nature is what makes them the same, they're both a Wisconsin fit, which makes them the same.
“Eric feels comfortable being more around the ball in the run game, more savviness, more tracking the ball carrier in the run game, whereas Patrick loves to roam back there a little bit more snatching the ball out of the air.”
Having the skills to play safety now and possibly corner down the road, Burrell’s biggest strengths are his physicality, quick recognition, initial burst and his vision. He plays his angles very well, allowing him to make an impact in the passing or running game because of his solid tackling technique. Selected for the 2016 Offense-Defense All-American Bowl, Burrell was a consensus all-state selection his final two years of high school and finished his career with 172 tackles, seven interceptions and 12 touchdowns.
An intelligent player who loves to compete, Johnson is a ball hawk who reads plays well, covers a lot of ground and has solid instincts. He registered five interceptions his junior season before an ankle injury cost him his senior season. The good news he has already made a full recovery and will be full go by the start of fall camp.
In addition to the two Maryland prospects, Wisconsin landing Seth Currens out of Ohio early the recruiting cycle was a commitment that excited the coaching staff. A prospect that really improved his stock his senior year, Currens shows a competitive drive on his film as he attacks the football in the air. He registered three of his 13 career interceptions and nine of his 26 career pass breakups in his senior year. Although Currens has a chance to be solid, a redshirt season will do him to add weight and muscle to his frame.
Wisconsin was able to land a number of talented corners and safeties in the class but also showed strong interest in K.J. Sails (North Carolina), Armunz Matthews (South Florida) and Carlos Becker (Florida State). Prior to Johnson and Burrell committing to Wisconsin, the Badgers were able to land three star safety Craig Watts out of Florida. It didn’t last long. Watts committed to Wisconsin on June 21 before reopening his recruitment back up on July 10. Watts eventually signed his national letter of intent with South Florida but also committed to Colorado in late September.
With senior Sojourn Shelton the only returning corner with starting experience, it will be a battle between Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson to see who starts opposite of Shelton and who starts at nickel. The battle of the three freshman will determine who can become the fourth or fifth cornerback on the depth chart. It is possible all three could see playing time, depending on how they can adjust to the college game.
Both Burrell and Johnson will get the opportunity to crack the depth chart this season with the safety position up in the air, dependent on their ability to become comfortable in Wisconsin’s defense. Even if both bring a little something different to the position, their skills complement each other so well that the two – who are good friends off the field - should be able to play off one another, which should lead to success.
Signing Day Grade: B+