No time to spare for UW secondary

The Badgers needs their defensive backs to develop in a hurry

For the University of Wisconsin's largely inexperienced secondary, the Sept. 3 opener with Bowling Green could be viewed as a blessing and a curse.

The Falcons will visit Camp Randall boasting what may prove to be the nation's best passing offense, with a potential NFL No. 1 pick at the controls in quarterback Omar Jacobs.

The Badgers' last line of defense is brimming with talent but is short on experience. So, if you were UW defensive backs coach Ron Lee, do you want this game as the opener? Is this a fantastic opportunity to give the younger defensive backs a great deal of experience before the Big Ten season, against what will likely be the best passing attack they face all year? Or is it a trial by fire that could stand to wait until after a warm-up or two?

Reminded of this set of circumstances during an interview last month, Lee laughed heartily.

"I was just talking about that," he said, "it's funny you asked. I don't know."

"But regardless of who we are playing," Lee added, after taking time to laud Jacobs and Bowling Green's receivers. "We have to be ready."

Before Lee is skewered for not salivating at the opportunity to take on the best, consider UW's situation heading into the start of fall training camp next week.

Four of the Badgers' top six defensive backs from last year are gone, including All-Big Ten corner Scott Starks, a four-year starter, and All-Big Ten free safety Jim Leonhard, who received some All-American kudos in each of his three years as a starter. UW will also miss starting strong safety Robert Brooks and corner Chuckie Cowans, who spent most of the year as the nickel back.

Needing to break so many new faces into the rotation, there are bound to be growing pains.

Despite that attrition, however, Lee is confident that UW's secondary will be one to reckon with this year.

He has to be buoyed by the knowledge that senior cornerback Brett Bell is expected to participate fully in fall camp after recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. If he stays healthy, Bell could be the conference's best corner.

Opposite Bell is senior Levonne Rowan, who started nine games in 2003, but spent most of last year as the fourth corner.

"I'm expecting big things from Levonne," Lee said. "I'm expecting him to have a great senior year. And the way he goes is the way the secondary will go."

Rowan has good size (6-foot-1, 191 pounds) and very good athleticism, but he has struggled with his consistency.

"It's his time," Lee said. "There is no more ‘make a mistake and you have someone that can go out for you.' He has to play every down like it's his last down."

UW has some experience at strong safety, where juniors Johnny White and Joe Stellmacher each have starting experience. Lee said the competition for that starting spot is "going to go all the way to the first game."

The competition is similarly tight at free safety. Juniors Roderick Rogers and Zach Hampton have served on special teams the past two seasons.

"Zach Hampton and Roderick Rogers, they are going to battle all the way through double days," Lee said. "And I'm looking for that dark horse. Someone who is going to show up and you just can't keep him off the field."

Redshirt freshmen Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu are the top reserves at corner; they each have the talent to be the type of ‘dark horse' Lee alluded to. Ikegwuonu could also play free safety, as could sophomore corner Ben Strickland. Sophomore safety James Kamoku could also be in the mix for playing time.

"The depth on our secondary is incredible," Bell said during Big Ten media days Tuesday in Chicago. "There's guys that can step up that nobody even really knows about — that could surprise a lot of teams and surprise a lot of quarterbacks."

Once that depth gets its feet wet, the Badgers' nickel and dime defenses should match up well against the high-octane passing games they will face from teams like Bowling Green, Michigan and Purdue.

"Allen Langford, Jack Ikegwuonu, Zach Hampton, Ben Strickland. We've got a bunch of candidates," Lee said, in reference to the nickel and dime spots. "Even at the safety spot. You look at James Kamoku, he's another guy that can help. We have some numbers, it is just experience behind it."

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