MADISON – Derrick Tindal describes himself as “a cool cat” and, in reality, there’s not much to dislike about the 5-11 junior who can be a jokester with his teammates.
But when it comes to people – those anonymous creatures on internet message boards and social media – doubting his place in Wisconsin’s secondary, Tindal means business.
“I don’t let all the naysayers and other things get in my head,” Tindal said. “I just have to go out and play and do what I do. Everybody has some people that want to down them. I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing and working hard.”
Entering spring practices for the University of Wisconsin, the critical eye looks right at the secondary and the major rebuild on the group’s hands.
Not only did Wisconsin lose a pair of three-year starters in safety Michael Caputo and cornerback Darius Hillary, the Badgers saw senior Tanner McEvoy and his team-leading six interceptions graduate.
Tindal is part of a small group of players who have starting experience coming into this season, a result of the Badgers having an experience group of four starters last season. Outside senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton, only Tindal (six), junior Lubern Figaro (six) and senior Leo Musso (two) have started multiple games for the Badgers. It’s part of the reason why UW signed seven cornerbacks in the 2016 recruiting class.
Tindal played the most out of the group and has become a professional at dealing with adversity.
Not only adjusting to life 1,500 miles away from home, Tindal lost his mother after a long battle with cancer during his true freshman season. Last spring he was knocked unconscious while attempting to tackle Taiwan Deal, leading to an ambulance ride to the hospital and dealing with concussion effects for two weeks.
He played more confident as a sophomore, and finished the year with 34 tackles as the team’s starting nickel cornerback, but battled through back and right ankle injuries.
“The last two years, with all that adversity I went through, showed me how strong that I am,” Tindal said. “I can fight through a lot of things. A lot of people don’t have to go through all that.”
With only five official cornerbacks listed on the roster, Wisconsin has spent the early part of spring putting Shelton and Tindal as the starters and junior Natrell Jamerson at the nickel, a spot he filled in last year when Tindal was injured.
UW has also rotated Figaro at the position and given senior Serge Trezy – moving over from tailback – and redshirt freshman Titus Booker a strong look. UW coaches have been impressed with Booker’s athleticism, but he’s still learning the position after playing tailback in high school
“We’re definitely building some depth,” Tindal said. “Titus is coming along great. You see from before to now, Titus has made the transition. Natrell is becoming a lock-down corner. We’re going to depend on Natrell a lot this year. I’ve watched some of the corners we have coming in and I think they have some great talent. They’ll be able to come in and join us to help us be better.”
The safety spot is less clear. Although 10 safeties are listed on the roster, Wisconsin has rotated between Musso, junior D'Cota Dixon and sophomore Arrington Farrar with the starters. Juniors Keelon Brookins (who was an inside linebacker in fall) and Joe Ferguson are also intriguing options.
And everything is a possibility this season with a new secondary coach in Jim Leonhard, who was immediately embraced by the players.
“We were just happy to have somebody who has been through the program and been to the N.F.L.,” Tindal said. “That’s not to say we weren’t sad about Coach (Daronte) Jones. Coach Jones is a great coach and we respect him. I respect his decision to go to the N.F.L. But when Coach Leonhard came, everybody was happy and everybody is still happy with the decision. He played with some of the top talent and helped (lead) some of the top talent. I know if he tells me something he’s not going to lead me down the wrong direction.”
Leonhard admitted there was some butterflies the first couple meetings standing in front of the room instead of sitting in it but said the first three practices of spring were set up perfectly for him to go heavy on individual emphasis and technique.
“Spring is all about building your depth,” Leonhard said. “Obviously we have three starters who left. There’s going to be competitions. Guys are going to be competing for those jobs. That builds depth. You want to feel comfortable with 8-10 guys and get as many guys as ready to play as possible. That’s what spring if for.”
And while he hasn’t seen his players compete in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, Leonhard feels comfortable with the depth after Shelton at corner and the options at safety.
“It’s not a situation where you have a competition where two or three guys have never seen the field and you just don’t know when the lights are on in front of 80,000 people what they’re going to do,” Leonhard said. “They have experience, and it really is priceless.”