Make no mistake he loved playing safety and the transition he went through last season was full of challenging moments, but Figaro is relishing an assignment where so much is put on his shoulders.
“It’s all eyes on you,” Figaro said. “If you make a mistake … either you win some or you lose some at corner. I love being out there because it gives you a whole lot of confidence. You are out on an island and it’s you and that man. That’s the best part.”
With the leg injury to nickel cornerback Natrell Jamerson keeping him on the shelf for the next 4-to-6 weeks, Figaro will see increased playing time in Wisconsin’s defense, likely starting this Saturday in the final nonconference tune up against Georgia State.
Wisconsin defensive back coach Jim Leonhard would not reveal his plan for filling Jamerson’s spot, but said Figaro’s biggest asset his he’s not willing to back down from a challenge.
“He’s more than athletic enough to play on the outside,” Leonhard said. “Starting in the spring to where he is now, his confidence level being out there, playing man-to-man, challenging guys and playing within the techniques we’re asking him to do are the biggest pieces of improvement that I’ve seen. I’m excited for him to get a chance to go play.”
Figaro jumped on the scene quickly for Wisconsin. He played all 13 games for Wisconsin in 2014, starting the season opener and three of the next five. He delivered interceptions, forced fumbles and racked up tackles.
But as the season wore on, Figaro saw his playing time decrease in favor of Peniel Jean, who started seven of the final eight games of the regular season.
That was tough, but not as tough as being relegated to mostly special teams last season.
“It was rough,” Figaro said. “That’s a little adversity, and you had to face it. I’m glad I’m over now. I’ve got more confidence now. I feel great, faster and stronger.”
With the new arrival of head coach Paul Chryst, and recognizing the Badgers were thin at the corner spot, Figaro and the staff decided to move him to corner, a tough decision at first. After all Figaro was one of the top 50 safeties in the country in his 2014 class and his play earned him over a dozen scholarship offers, including Michigan State, Syracuse and Vanderbilt.
Up until the switch, cornerback was practically a foreign position to him.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be,” Figaro said. “I played it for one game in high school. It was kind of rough at first because my footwork really wasn’t there. I used to get beat all the time.”
It’s taken time but the move has started to pay off for Figaro. His three tackles through the first two games this year were triple what he had a year ago. Figaro expects that it will be a committee approach to fill Jamerson’s role, but he’s embracing the opportunity for the reps that will come his way.
“Being able to own that island is pretty cool,” Figaro said. “Being one-on-one with a guy, that’s a pretty cool experience. At free safety you really don’t get that much action, unless they go deep. Now at corner, you’re going one-on-one. That’s exciting”
Baun Learns from the Best
Knowing he was going to make the position change from high school quarterback to college outside linebacker, Zack Baun knew there would be growing pains during his redshirt season last year. As it happened to play out, Baun couldn’t have asked for two better players to study his new position under than Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel.
The work has evidently paid off, as Baun’s first extensive action at the field linebacker position Saturday earned him two tackles (one for loss) in the 54-10 victory over Akron.
“I’ve had a lot of people to look up to,” said Baun, who is also working kickoff, kickoff return and punt return. “(Joe and Vince) have a different style of play that I pick and choose what I take from each.”
From Schobert, Baun tries to mimic his coverage instincts with his drops and breaks on the football. From Biegel, Baun is trying to become a prolific pass rusher, which was why the 10+ reps he got Saturday were huge for him.
“(Games are) more intense than practice,” Baun said. “It’s like bringing the scout team reps to life. The guys are bigger, faster and stronger than scout team, so it’s good to have that experience.”
Baun called the transition “different” and “tough” after being named the state’s most outstanding senior quarterback in 2014. While he’s still working on being reactive instead of the one trying to fool the defense, he had no regrets.
“I’m glad I did it,” Baun said. “Playing quarterback in college isn’t the easiest thing to do.”
The Drawing Board
As stated above, the majority of Leonhard’s plan for this weekend is under wraps other than a younger player has to step into the mix to fill the void over the next month of games.
“We need somebody to step up and it’s going to be someone who doesn’t have a whole lot of experience on the outside,” he said. “I’m excited. The guys have handled it.”
Leonhard said with senior Sojourn Shelton and juniors Jamerson and Derrick Tindal at his disposal, he had the luxury of being able to pick and choose where he could put each guy in an alignment or a scheme. Now with Jamerson out, Leonard’s decision making will be based on if an unknown commodity can prove himself.
Wisconsin lists eight cornerbacks on its roster. Exclude the two starters, the injured Jamerson and Nick Nelson having to sit because of transfer rules, Leonhard has four corners to work with: senior Serge Trezy, redshirt freshman Titus Booker and true freshmen Dontye Carriere-Williams and Caesar Williams. Both Carriere-Williams and Williams haven’t played this season and Leonhard said the staff is in discussions to have one, or both of them, play this year.
“We have what we think are the answers this week and you go from there,” Leonard said. “You expect guys to come in and play well. That’s my expectations from the way they’ve played all camp, all spring. I expect the next guy to step up. If they don’t, you have to go back to the drawing board.”
Leonhard said the Badgers have some flexibility because Tindal played the nickel spot his first two years on campus and Shelton can play any spot on the field.
“When you can move the pieces and get the matchups you want, that’s huge for your defense,” Leonard said. “Hopefully we can do that.”