Turning the corner(s)

Young players are striving to replace experienced predecessors

A year ago, Wisconsin's defensive backfield was a bastion of talent and experience. From starters Scott Starks, Jim Leonhard, Brett Bell and Robert Brooks to backups Levonne Rowan and Chuckie Cowans, the Badgers oozed familiarity with one another.

But gone are Starks, Leonhard, Brooks and Cowans and in their place, a bevy of talented redshirt freshmen, including corners Allen Langford, Jack Ikegwuonu and Antonio Freeman, are being forced to step up, especially at the depleted cornerback position. But just because the Badgers' experience has diminished does not mean their expectations have.

With Bell currently sitting out spring practice with a knee injury, the coaches are looking for one of their freshmen to step up after the then-rookies spent last fall learning from the sidelines.

"We were pretty solid at corner last year with Starks, Bell and Levonne [Rowan], so we had the opportunity to redshirt them," UW secondary coach Ron Lee said. "[But] when you bring skill players in these days, they've got to be ready to go."

So far this spring, Langford has proven ready and has distanced himself from his classmates. After never seeing the field last season, despite expectations to the contrary, Langford has stepped up to the coach's challenge this spring, seeing time opposite Rowan on the first-team defense.

After suffering a broken hand prior to the Arizona game, which effectively earned him a redshirt last season, the Detroit native has earned the praise of his coaches with his play this spring. Lining up against the Badgers' top receivers, Langford has held his own, keeping the ball out of their hands for significant stretches throughout the spring with his physical style and solid technique.

Langford's biggest improvement this spring has been his comprehension of the defense. Langford admitted that he struggled with the mental transition to the college game last season, when he found he could no longer rely on his athletic prowess to make up for mistakes.

"In high school I relied on my athleticism, now I've got to rely on my head now," Langford said. "But I'm confident I can go out there and compete."

Langford is not the only freshman corner on the team to have the coaching staff singing his praises. Ikegwuonu has also received his share of kudos with his strong spring play.

"I think Jack Ikegwuonu has really done a lot of good things," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "I think he's got a very bright future, makes plays every practice and has a lot of ability."

Much like Langford, Ikegwuonu has seen his play flourish this spring after a fall season of study and practice. While he currently is seeing time with the second-team defense, he has also enjoyed success against Wisconsin's veteran receivers, though the modest Madison native would rather not acknowledge his solid play.

While questions about his physical ability have slowly waned, Ikegwuonu believes his persistent mental preparation will ultimately secure his spot on the field. Ikegwuonu admitted that he was not mentally ready to play last season, and would not have wanted to play because of this. This realization pushed the redshirt freshman even harder in his mental preparation for this season.

"If you don't know what you're doing you can be the best athlete and it still look like you're the worst athlete because you don't know what you are doing," Ikegwuonu said. "I think that a lot of the guys in the past that had success here, they've been students of the game. And I think that's what it's going to take for me to be successful here."

But while the Madison Memorial graduate is excited about his progress this season, he was hesitant to say he expected playing time this fall. However, the freshman's eyes lit up and his speech stumbled when told about coach Lee's confidence in his play, and his willingness to give him playing time next season.

"I'm really happy he would say that about me," Ikegwuonu said after hearing Lee's comments. "I think I've come a long way and if you'd asked him that same question last fall or last summer he'd have said, ‘No way I'm putting Jack out there.' But now that he's said that I'm really proud of myself and really happy that he has that trust in me. I'm just going to keep working hard and I think that will make me work that much harder."

But perhaps the most well-known of the trio of young defensive backs is Freeman. Coming out of Wauwatosa (Wis.) West, Freeman was famous for his size and blazing speed — he ran a 10.4 100-meter dash as a high school track standout. But Freeman struggled as a freshman last season, finding the transition from high school linebacker to college cornerback difficult.

"A lot of people say corner is the hardest position to play," Freeman said, adding he agrees with that assessment. "I knew there was a lot of stuff that I needed to learn."

However, this spring Freeman has made significant strides. After spending most of last season on the scout team, a move he willingly accepted, Freeman has fought his way up the spring depth chart and is currently seeing snaps with the second-team defense. While Freeman remains a work in progress, his increasing grasp of the defensive philosophy has improved his reaction time considerably, allowing the freshman to better utilize his natural physical ability.

But this spring was not just supposed to be about football for Freeman. After a stellar high school career on the track circuit, the freshman was expected to be a prominent part of UW's track team this year. Yet, Freeman has put those expectations on hold after his first fall with the football team, instead choosing to focus on improving on the gridiron.

"I'm just going to concentrate on football and pick up on track next year," Freeman said. "I'll probably do a little practicing with them, but I'm just not going to run this year. I just want to concentrate on football, get everything going right since I am on a football scholarship."

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