For the first time in 27 games Saturday, Scott Starks was not a starter in Wisconsin's secondary. Instead, sophomore Levonne Rowan took the field at left cornerback. The two shared time against UNLV, with Rowan receiving the bulk of playing time in the Badgers field, or base, defense. Each took to the field in nickel situations.
The changes at left corner were just part of the varied defensive personnel moves Wisconsin made prior to Saturday's game. Ryan Aiello, who had started 14 games for the Badgers the past two seasons, was replaced at strong safety by redshirt freshman Joe Stellmacher, who had been the team's nickel defensive back. As with Rowan and Starks, the two rotated throughout the contest.
"We are trying to create competition," defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said following the UNLV game. "If guys are doing a good job we want them to be rewarded. We thought (Levonne Rowan) played very well last week and had a good week of practice. We always knew we were going to play them both. The same with Ryan Aiello and Joe Stellmacher. They both have been playing well. So we wanted to change it up a little bit and give those guys an opportunity."
At weakside linebacker, Chris Catalano subbed for Kareem Timbers late in the first quarter and essentially claimed the position, garnering the bulk of the playing time and recording five tackles while recovering a fumble.
"Chris Catalano played his butt off," linebacker Jeff Mack said. "I have nothing but high praise for Chris Catalano. Every time he comes in, every time he is asked to do something he does it, and he does it to the best of his ability. I just hope the coaches see that and can get him on the field more."
Apparently, Wisconsin's coaches saw just what Mack was looking at, for when the Badgers official depth chart was released Monday, Catalano, a junior, was listed No. 1 at weakside linebacker, with junior Timbers and sophomore LaMarr Watkins second and third, respectively.
"Catalano did some good things and showed us we could trust him on the field and he was where he needed to be," coach Barry Alvarez said. "He competed pretty well and had been doing a good job on special teams, so we wanted to give him some more playing time."
Starks and Rowan are listed as sharing the top duties at left corner. Stellmacher, who was named the team's co-defensive player of the week following the UNLV game, is listed No. 2 behind senior Aiello, but will likely continue to rotate at the position.
White, Rogers to get shot playing in nickel and dime
"We decided after watching those freshmen defensive backs, we want to work them into the nickel package and just get them on the field," Alvarez said. "And that's the way to do it is, you know, when you are playing extra defensive backs so they are not—they can get some playing time when they are not isolated one-on-one with someone."
White moved ahead of junior Robert Brooks to become the No. 2 free safety and Rogers, who had been in among the second team cornerbacks since the final week of fall camp, has solidified a position as the No. 2 right corner, wresting the spot from sophomore Johnny Sylvain. Junior Chuckie Cowans is listed as the No. 3 left corner while no third-team player is listed at right corner.
Changing with the dime
Wisconsin played with six defensive backs at times against the Rebels, a rare phenomenon for a Barry Alvarez-coached team. The change, though, was simply one of personnel, rather than system. When the Badgers moved to this quasi-dime look, they played their nickel defensive system, but placed an extra defensive back in the mix.
Joe Stellmacher, who normally plays the nickel defensive back position, slid over to linebacker, replacing LaMarr Watkins. Jeff Mack remained at the other linebacker position. Rowan, Starks and starting right corner Brett Bell manned the cornerback spots with Starks essentially playing the nickel back role. Starting free safety Jim Leonhard and Brooks remained at their customary safety positions.
"We haven't done it very often," Cosgrove said of the six defensive backs. "Joe just gives us that ability. He is almost as big as a linebacker and he has very good speed. So it just adds another dimension to what we want to do."
It is this defensive alignment where freshmen White and Rogers are most likely to see playing time this season. The Badgers look poised to continue playing Bell, Rowan and Starks together in the nickel/dime, leaving the safety position that has been manned by Robert Brooks as the most likely position where the freshmen will see work. Rogers could also rotate in at nickel back.
Linebacker depth beginning to show
Wisconsin has long lauded its potential depth at the linebacker positions and the development of players at all three spots looks to be coming to fruition, most notably in Catalano's one-week promotion from third-team to first-team at the weakside spot.
Kyle McCorison has spelled Jeff Mack at middle linebacker throughout the season, receiving his largest chunk of playing time against Akron. The Badgers appear comfortable with him in the game, as well as sophomore Elliot Goode, who received some playing time at Alex Lewis' strongside linebacker spot, Saturday.
"We practice that way all the time," Cosgrove said. "We rotate guys in practice. We want competition. Competition is good. I think we will continue to get more of that."
James' return uncertain
When asked about the condition of defensive end Erasmus James, Monday, Alvarez gave the following response:
"I don't have anything new to tell you. We don't know anything. How bad the injury is, how long he is expected out. Let me tell you this, you know as much as I do. I think I've read where he's on crutches and he has a hip injury. That's all I know. So I'm not trying to be a wise guy. I don't have anything else to tell you. I don't know even when they're going to look at it again."