Setting the Stage
One of the main areas of concern entering last season turned out to be a strength, as free safety Leo Musso and strong safety D'Cota Dixon successfully made up for the graduation of Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy the season before. Musso surpassed outside expectations by leading the team with five interceptions and finishing second on the team with 74 tackles. He also had one of the plays of the season with his fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown (complete with a wicked spin move) in Wisconsin's big win at Michigan State.
Dixon sprung that play with a furious hit and many others like it. More important than his 60 tackles, Dixon finished games. One of his four interceptions clinched the win over LSU and one of his four pass breakups ended the overtime win against Nebraska. Dixon returns for what will likely be his junior season (he’s eligible for a medical redshirt) but needs to find a new partner with Musso’s graduation.
Player to Watch: D’Cota Dixon
Dixon and Musso started every game last season, which means Dixon will be in a position of leadership and great influence on the group entering his second year as a full-time starter.
Speaking to Dixon following the bowl win, a game in which the Badgers held a Western Michigan offense averaging 43 points per game to only 16, he said the defense holding opponents to 202.6 passing yards per game on the season (30th in the country) was a great step forward. In the same breath, he said there’s still much more to accomplish.
“We still have a lot to prove,” he said. “We left a trophy in Indiana (Big Ten championship) that should have been home with us. There are still a lot of goals to achieve … It’s never easy (to replace seniors) because you have to get your mind locked back in again, but that’s OK. We’ll be fine. We’ll be ready. We’ll be rolling. We’ll be conditioned. We’ll be ready to go.”
After starting his UW career at outside linebacker, the coaching staff wisely moved Dixon to his more natural position. With another offseason to grow and develop, Dixon will be one of the leaders of the secondary and the defense.
Story Line to Watch: Can Jamerson handle another switch?
The coaching staff knows what Natrell Jamerson brings as a kick returner, as his speed and elusiveness can be a potent weapon, but it’s fair to say it’s still a mystery what Jamerson can bring as a position player. After a nondescript freshman season playing receiver, Jamerson was moved the following spring to cornerback. He finished 2015 with 13 tackles in 14 games and entered last season as the team’s starting nickel corner but never got going after breaking his leg in the second half of a blowout win over Akron and missed six games.
Jamerson now finds himself at free safety opposite Dixon, as the Badgers are analyzing whether his ball skills, range and athleticism could be an asset roaming the back end of the defense. While not the strongest cover corner on the team, Jamerson’s knowledge of the position could also give the Badgers flexibility in certain packages and schemes against multiple receiver formations and pass-heavy offenses.
End-of-Spring Goal: A Solid Second Unit
It’s a bit of a mixed bag after the starting unit, meaning defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard can mix and match combinations over spring practices to find what works. The two players with the most experience (albeit mostly on special teams) are junior Arrington Farrar and senior Joe Ferguson. Both players had seven tackles in 14 games last season and were used in different defensive packages. Ferguson is the most experienced safety of the group with 44 games played and one start.
“The biggest thing is I’m just trusting myself a lot more,” Ferguson said in bowl prep. “Maybe in the past I’d be worried about messing. (Coach Leonhard’s) focus is just on making the play. I’m really not down on myself if I mess something up. There’s always a next opportunity to break up a pass, make an interception, make a tackle. His big thing is trusting yourself, trusting what he teaches. In camp you trust his technique, you try it in practice and it works. You bring it to a game and it makes you feel like you belong here.”
Wisconsin has recruited the safety position well over the last few years and have a budding dynamic combo in sophomore Patrick Johnson (projected free safety with his ball skills) and redshirt freshman Eric Burrell (projected strong safety with his strength in run coverage). UW is also excited about the development of redshirt freshman Seth Currens, who played multiple positions in high school, has strong leadership qualities and loves to work.