MADISON – Madison Cone ended his varsity career with 27 interceptions and 51 pass breakups, numbers more impressive when he humbly brags that schools stopped targeting his side of the field. With those stats and accolades, Cone easily could have had over three dozen offers from some of the top programs in the country.
But the new Wisconsin commit said virtually every major college coach who came through East Forsyth High School in North Carolina to meet with him told him the same thing.
“They said if I was three inches taller that I would have offers from everybody in the country,” Cone said. “Hearing remarks like that makes me come in here every day with a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove to everybody that I can get it done.”
That hunger was part of the reason Wisconsin had no problem courting Cone or 5-11 cornerback Faion Hicks, two under-appreciated prospects who are two of 18 scholarship players in Wisconsin’s 2017 class and have each enrolled early to get a jump on their college careers.
“They are very competitive, explosive guys,” defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard said. “They continued to change games, make plays at the highest level. The play-making ability is hard to create. Some kids have it and some kids aren’t as natural at it.”
If anybody knows anything about overcoming height restrictions it’s Leonhard, who matched UW’s school record with 21 interceptions in his career and finished with 50 passes defended as a 5-8 safety. So while having a corner gifted with height is nice, it’s not the end all for the UW staff when they are out on the trail recruiting.
“A lot of it is how fluid they are,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the length, but it’s another thing to have the game that complements that. Part of it’s teaching and part of it is you don’t want to start from basement level and have to try to create something that’s not there. To me, size at the corner position is a little overrated because you’ve got to have movement skills.”
That trait is especially important at Wisconsin, which demands that its corners cover its targets in a man-to-man defense.
“You can be undersized if you do other things at an elite level,” Leonhard said. “Whether it’s your feet, how you play certain techniques, play making and attacking the football, you can get around the size to some degree if you do some other things really well.”
Footwork has been lauded as one of Hicks’ strengths. Not only is he physical, registering 75 tackles and seven interceptions in his career, Hicks rushed for 1,356 yards and 13 touchdowns. A pair of shoulder injuries that needed surgery scared some teams off, but defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield was impressed when he visited Hicks first in the spring. Leonhard jumped in at the start of Hicks’ senior season, contacting every week until they eventually offered.
After sitting down and talk to head coach Paul Chryst and the assistant coaches on his official visit, Hicks knew that the Badgers – only his third Power-Five offer – was the right fit for him. And knowing since his junior year that he wanted to leave early, even taking classes last summer to get him on track, Hicks has already adjusted to his new home.
“Coming in early you get adjusted to workouts, going to class, stuff like that,” Hicks said. “It’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
“My goal (in spring) is to learn the defense and be the best teammate I can be for the coaches,” Hicks added. “I want to try to make an impact as a true freshman.”
Running back coach John Settle and Leonhard told Cone the same thing about the opportunity to make an early impact. They also never used his size as a negative.
Cone gives a lot of credit for his plays on the ball to a history of baseball, his sport of choice from the time he was seven to age 11. Playing centerfield because of his speed, Cone’s ability to track the baseball carried over, and Wisconsin took notice of his ability to make the play at its highest point.
“They told me from the first time they met me that they weren’t worried about the height issue,” Cone said. “They said I was plenty tall enough because the film doesn’t lie if you show you can compete with these big guys. Guys are out here to prove something, so I feel I have a lot to prove.”
Wisconsin enters the spring needing to replace starter Sojourn Shelton and improve its depth across the board. With their recruitments behind them, both Cone and Hicks are ready to show that height is just a number.
“It does put a chip on my shoulder to try to prove everybody wrong,” Hicks said. “I think that’s pretty much the tradition here at Wisconsin, the underdogs. Wisconsin always has some underdog players but they soon step up to be superstars.”