CHICAGO - Sitting down in his first team meeting as a college football player, Sojourn Shelton remembers taking his seat in the back of the room and looking down the many rows in front of him.
"I remember seeing (Chris) Borland, Jared Abbrederis, Dez Southward and those guys and realized it was going to take me a long time to get there,” said Shelton. "It's flown by pretty fast."
His view has changed drastically over the years, more so than his place in the meeting room.
From the time he committed, Shelton has dealt with three head coaches, two cornerbacks coaches and two drastically defensive schemes. Yet the one constant for Shelton is that when the season opens September 3 against LSU at Lambeau Field he will most likely be trotting out with the starting defense.
“It’s pretty cool to me that I’ve played that much football here,” Shelton said. “I don’t take it for granted. You’re full go at the start but as you get toward the end you realize you got to do some pretty cool things.”
That longevity is a rarity at Wisconsin. The Badgers haven’t had a four-year starter at cornerback since Mike Echols from 1998-2001, and Shelton’s 37 starts are nine more than the next closest on the team (outside linebacker Vince Biegel).
“I’ve learned a lot and keep learning about this game and all that comes with it, through good times and bad times,” Shelton said. “We all have dreams and aspirations of going to the N.F.L., but hopefully I can use these experiences to shape me for what I have in the future for myself.”
Shelton’s sophomore year was a prime example of using a negative experience to shape things into a positive. After bursting on to the scene as a true freshman, Shelton admitted to putting too much pressure on his shoulder to out due a 36-tackle, four-interception season. The result was a number of blown assignments in a new 3-4 scheme, an increase in penalties, no interceptions and unsteady confidence.
A year later his interference penalties were down, his confidence was back and his numbers starting to climb.
“Overall I think I played pretty good last year,” Shelton said. “A lot of things were able to go up in a positive direction, but a lot of that stemmed from being around the coaching staff. Coach Chryst has a lot of confidence in me. He told me from the start that he understands I can be a special player, just sometimes I’m too hard on myself or put too much on myself.
“Sometimes you just got to play. I don’t play an easy position. Things are going to happen but a big part of my game is playing aggressive.”
One of his big moments last season was snagging an interception in Wisconsin’s Holiday Bowl win against USC, ending a dubious streak of no interception by a UW cornerback since November 2013.
“I truly did (need it),” he admitted. “I tell people all the time, when I catch that first one, it’s a wrap. It’s just a feel thing. When I caught (the pick), I wish I would have had some more games after that. My whole thing throughout my sophomore and junior season was just catch one. I always felt they were in my hands, and I let them slip away. When you get that feel of bringing them in, you get on a roll. If I get that first one early (this year), there could be some problems.”
Since starting work with new defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard, who Shelton lauds for having a tremendous professional career with a body type similar to his, Shelton believes he’s found his comfort zone, which has allowed him to develop into a leadership role.
With three-year starter Darius Hillary gone, Wisconsin is going to a well of young players, few of whom having any meaningful game experience. While that may raise some warning flags, Shelton believes the group could be in for a banner year considering Wisconsin’s front seven is loaded with experience and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme (based on aggression) will make a young group eager.
Don’t believe it? Leonhard and Wilcox made sure the unmanned group in the spring got a jump on things by putting an emphasis on getting pressure, creating turnovers and violently ripping the ball loose.
“The defense that Coach Wilcox is bringing is giving us all the chances to play aggressive,” Shelton said. “We have a lot of aggressive corners in the back end and a lot of corners who can make a lot of plays – myself, DT (Derrick Tindal), Natrell (Jamerson). All these guys are making plays and he’s giving us the chance to do that.”
While leadership is the big difference in his off-the-field responsibilities, Shelton looks in the mirror and sees a different cornerback, one that is more confident with the scheme and with his own ability to make plays.
When Wisconsin begins fall camp August 8, Shelton will take his seat at the front of meeting room that signifies his importance. It’s another change that Shelton has been happy to embrace.
“Looking up to an amazing season class, like Borland, Brendan Kelly and Dez, and figuring how long it’s going to take me to get up front in that room, it’s here now,” Shelton said. “I’m enjoying my time. I know it’s going to fly by fast, so I’m trying to have as much fun as I can.”