Secondary finds consistent voice

In his second year at Wisconsin, Ron Lee is leaving his mark on the defensive backfield

This week, University of Wisconsin senior cornerback Scott Starks has been America's football darling. He won numerous player of the week awards after his fumble recovery and 40-yard touchdown return gave the Badgers a 20-17 win at Purdue.

Starks' position coach, Ron Lee, however, had different plays on his mind.

"He said, ‘the plays that stuck out in my mind were the two pass interference calls,'" Starks said. "He's just talking about taking it to the next level. He's always trying to make me better mentally and physically."

In his second year as Wisconsin's secondary coach, Lee's tutelage has been key for players like Starks, who were begging for consistency 21 months ago.

When Lee was hired in January 2003, he became the Badgers' third defensive backs coach in three years, following Ron Cooper and Todd Bradford. For three consecutive years, UW's four current starters—Starks, senior free safety Jim Leonhard, senior strong safety Robert Brooks and fourth-year junior cornerback Brett Bell—had to relearn their positions.

"That can hurt a player's development, learning new techniques every year and new schemes ever year," Starks said.

This year, however, they finally have some stability.

"It means a lot to us, just having the same voice preaching at you, you can finally get into a rhythm with what you are doing," Leonhard said.

The mixture of a talented, veteran secondary and consistent coaching has helped Wisconsin become the fourth-ranked pass defense in the nation.

"Collectively, this group is very, very good," Lee said. "It's the chemistry more than the athlete. They know what each other is thinking."

Lee, his players said, set the tone early. He established smooth lines of communication and insisted on fundamentally sound, physical play.

"When we walk into a stadium, I want the opposing wide receivers to say, ‘that's a group that will hit you,'" Lee said. "You want to have that swagger that the other team had better be ready to pack a lunch because it is going to be a long day."

For Lee, everything comes back to communication.

"I want them to finish my thoughts," he said. "That's when you know you got the guys on the right page."

Before he could make an impression, however, Lee had to gain the trust of players who had every reason to doubt that the secondary coach carousel was slowing down.

"There was definitely some skepticism," he said. "The first question probably that came to their mind was ‘how long you going to be here?'

"My whole thing was not to make them any promises… I knew not to give them, ‘I'm going to be here six, seven years' and all that stuff. I said, ‘as long as we're winning and doing well I'm here. So you make the decision if you want me here or not.'"

"A lot of people think that just because you are a football coach kids have to respect you," said defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who is in his first year at Wisconsin. "That's not the case at all. You earn kids respect just as much as you earn anything over the course of time."

There were plenty of hiccups along the way.

"It takes a couple months really to get to know a coach, get to know how he acts, get to know how he coaches," Bell said.

"He came in and players were kind of skeptical," fifth-year senior cornerback Chuckie Cowans said. "You don't know what kind of coach he is, how is he going to push you….going through the whole season we finally clicked. Last spring it was, like, ‘OK, I understand what you're doing coach, let's do this. I'm here for you.'"

Other players needed to find that understanding as well. In the third game last season, Lee removed veterans Starks and then-senior strong safety Ryan Aiello from the starting lineup.

"I'm a competitive guy, I want to be on the field, but I wasn't the right guy at the time to start," Starks said. "That was difficult though."

Starks responded and has developed into arguably the best corner in the Big Ten.

"I was thankful that I had him for a whole another year and I'm sure the guys that are around me would say the same thing," Starks said.

Junior Levonne Rowan, who replaced Starks as a starter for the UNLV game last year, fought through injuries and ineffectiveness this season, before playing very well as a dime corner against Purdue.

"I told him I don't want no excuses," Lee said. "I told him, if you are hurt, I want you to get to the training room. If you are mentally hurt, you need to get in the film room."

"He's not going to sugarcoat anything," Leonhard said. "He's all about making you a better player and if you can't handle that you might have problems with him."

Though stern, Lee is typically laid back, rarely yelling at players.

"Coach Lee rolls with the punches," Bielema said. "I don't think he gets worked up over things that you don't have to be worked up about."

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