Safety contest: No free lunch

UW is auditioning four safeties for two spots; juggling could continue into the 2005 season

In Wisconsin defensive backs coach Ron Lee's framework, the only thing his top four safeties are guaranteed is that training table — replete with food — will be waiting for them after practice.

Roderick Rogers and Johnny White may have taken nearly all of the first-team reps this spring at free safety and strong safety, respectively, but now is not the time to anoint them as No. 1s.

"The only security in that position is that you know after practice you get to eat," Lee said. "There is no security. Every day they've been evaluated and it has been great competition at the strong and free safety."

Nipping at Rogers' and White's heels are Zach Hampton and Joe Stellmacher.

"Right now you've been seeing Johnny and Roderick with the ones because I want them to take that leadership role but I also want Stellmacher and Hampton to know to be ready to go in any time," Lee said.

In order to get that point across, Lee plans to use the four remaining spring practices — Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and possibly during Saturday's spring game — to juggle his top tandems. He wants to see Hampton work alongside White and Rogers work with Stellmacher, both with the first and second teams.

"I don't want them to get any kind of thoughts that they are a ‘one,'" Lee said. "There is no ‘one' until we play Bowling Green [in the Sept. 3 season opener]."

"It is going to see which two guys work best together," he said. "It starts with communication and then it goes around to who makes the plays."

Lee needs to develop starters at each safety position after the departure of three-year starter Jim Leonhard at free safety and single-season starter Robert Brooks at strong safety.

The four potential replacements, who will all be juniors in the fall, have loads of practice reps under their belts, but minimal game experience. All four have played extensively on special teams and White (two games) and Stellmacher (one) each have started at strong safety. Rogers and Hampton are particularly green at free safety.

Lee has confidence that all four will be productive this fall but he stressed that he will not know what he is going to get out of them until the pads start popping for real. Spring practices are a good indication of players' progress, but playing against the same competition every day does not allow for a full appraisal of player's abilities, he said.

"You never know the game speed," he said. "The game is different than the practice speed, but it will be interesting to see."

Lee, for instance, wants to know how each safety will adjust week-to-week against different offenses, and play-to-play in various situations. The Badgers will simulate as many potential scenarios as they can in spring and fall practices, but in the end Lee may choose to take advantage of the talents each safety brings to the table.

At 217 and 216 pounds, respectively, White and Stellmacher are loads in the running game. "Those are pretty good big guys with good movement, good athletic ability," Lee said. "They both are built like linebackers and they run like safeties."

Against a running team, then, the Badgers could put White and Stellmacher on the field together, with Stellmacher, who served as the Badgers' nickel back two seasons ago before breaking his leg and ankle five games into the season, playing free safety.

Rogers and Hampton, meanwhile, are better in coverage than their strong safety counterparts and could see the field together against pass happy teams. Lee said that Hampton in particular could be an asset against teams that employ four wide receiver sets. Both Hampton and Rogers spent time at cornerback before moving to safety and Hampton has retained those skills, looking fluid and confident when locking onto receivers man-to-man.

"I believe Zach can play corner. I believe he can play in the safety as well," Lee said. "He can be a nickel guy. He's a guy with a lot of athletic ability."

Lee has been thrilled to see Hampton make a number of plays this spring, including five interceptions in the past two practices. And despite working with the second-team defense, Hampton often faces the Badgers' top receivers. UW cycles its wide outs through the offense, regardless of whether the first or second team is on the field.

But Lee was quick to say that Rogers has also made his share of plays, if of a more subtle variety.

"It has to do with the play, the play they are calling," Lee said. "I think Roderick is making plays, you just notice Zach more because the ball is being thrown that way and Zach is making plays [on it]."

In an effort to help Rogers retain and improve upon his decent man-to-man coverage skills, Lee has begun pulling him out of a portion of the 9-on-9 inside running segment of practice, diverting his time to one-on-one coverage sessions with the wide receivers.

Both Rogers and Hampton have been solid against the run, but they do not pack the wallop that White and Stellmacher can deliver. Conversely, White needs to continue to improve his coverage skills. Stellmacher is good in coverage, but does not have quite the range Rogers and Hampton provide.

The mixed and matched skill sets create a hefty task for Lee, who will have to settle on a pair of starters in fall camp. But their versatility also sets up a world of possibilities, and could allow Lee wide latitude when considering potential matchups next fall.

"I feel confident in all four of them," Lee said. "First of all I like the way they are communicating in the back end. I like the way they are playing."

Three other players could factor into the safety mix in purely reserve roles. Third-year sophomore Ben Strickland is currently serving as the No. 5 corner but could also move back to free safety, where he played during bowl practices and fall camp last year.

Sophomore James Kamoku moved back to strong safety from linebacker this spring but has been hampered by an injury. Redshirt freshman Jameson Davis has played strong safety on Wednesdays (when Stellmacher has class) but free safety otherwise.

"He is doing okay," Lee said of Davis. "It is just a learning curve for him."

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