Seven defensive backs have received significant playing time this season—safeties Jim Leonhard, Ryan Aiello, Joe Stellmacher and Robert Brooks and corners Brett Bell, Scott Starks and Levonne Rowan. Starks and Rowan at left corner and Aiello and Stellmacher at strong safety look set to split time, as they did versus the Rebels, at least in the short term. All four will continue to receive significant playing time no matter who starts, especially in the nickel defense, where Stellmacher has assumed the role of ‘adjustment backer' and Starks and Rowan are sharing duties at left corner and nickel back.
Add to this that two true freshman—free safety Johnny White and corner Roderick Rogers—have secured spots on the second team defense, and will soon have a shot in the nickel, and the secondary has depth aplenty.
"They are very good athletes," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said, in reference to Rogers and White. "It is just a matter of them maturing and understanding the system. I feel now that they have a good grasp of what we are trying to do."
Catalano, Goode earning time; Zalewski on horizon
The Badgers have long tried to create the type of depth at linebacker that would allow them to rotate players in and give starters a rest. Now, that appears to be close to a reality.
On the strongside, sophomore Elliot Goode has earned an ever-increasing amount of playing time, having spelled Alex Lewis the past two games. Senior Kyle McCorison has afforded starter Jeff Mack a rest at middle linebacker at times throughout the season.
"What we are trying to do is give them more reps in practice, try to bring them along and bring them along slowly and do the same thing in games," Cosgrove said.
Another new face will likely soon join the mix—redshirt freshman Mark Zalewski, who is listed No. 3 at middle linebacker.
"I'd like to get Mark Zalewski more involved and get him more reps in practice," Cosgrove said.
These top reserves are not quite in a position where Wisconsin will consider truly rotating them, but they are close.
"I don't think they are very far away," Cosgrove said. "I would trust them in a game right now. I have no problem with that. You would like the level to be the same no matter who is in the game."
Defensive line still searching for depth
Cosgrove, though, knows that depth is precarious.
"Right now you lose a couple kids your depth is depleted," he said.
Cosgrove made the above statement speaking in the broadest terms—no matter how deep a position is, the idea goes, it is only a few injuries away from being thin.
Wisconsin's defensive line is a case study. As the Badgers secondary and linebacking depth has improved this season, the front four has been depleted.
The Badgers' coaching staff constantly lauded the depth along the defensive line before this season began. Then, the team lost defensive tackle Mike Kleber likely for his career due to a knee injury. Starting left defensive end Erasmus James has been out indefinitely with a hip injury. Top reserve end/tackle Darius Jones missed the Akron game due to suspension and the other top reserve, end/tackle Nick Cochart, missed last week with an ankle injury and will also miss Saturday's contest with North Carolina.
Due to the myriad hits to Wisconsin's depth, tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson and end Jonathan Welsh have rarely left the field. Freshman end Joe Monty assumed a reserve role against Akron and UNLV, recording two tackles against the Zips, and looks poised to receive more playing time as the year goes on. Defensive tackle Lyle Maiava saw his first action against the Rebels, but did not record a tackle. Kalvin Barrett continues to sub at tackle in short yardage situations.
"I think right now we have created depth in the secondary," Cosgrove said. "We are still bringing our young backup linebackers along. And, you know, we have some good young defensive linemen and we are hoping that they get better and they mature."