Redshirt year, hard work propel CB

Freshman Jack Ikegwuonu is in line for significant playing time in the Badgers' secondary

A year ago Jack Ikegwuonu looked poised to make an immediate contribution to the University of Wisconsin football team. Then a true freshman, Ikegwuonu had played well in his first fall training camp and was among the Badgers' top six cornerbacks.

UW's secondary, though, remained remarkably healthy, so Ikegwuonu's services were not needed. That was fine with Ikegwuonu, who had intimated that August that he would prefer to redshirt.

Now, that wish having been granted, Ikegwuonu has established himself as one of UW's best defensive backs. He was one of the top four corners throughout the Badgers' recently concluded training camp, spending time with both the first- and second-team defenses. And he is one of the favorites to win the nickel back spot heading into UW's season opener Saturday, when Bowling Green's high-octane passing offense will grace Camp Randall Stadium.

"I knew that last year I wasn't really mentally ready to play," Ikegwuonu said during camp. "I've learned a lot since last year, reading the formations and learning different wide receiver tendencies.

"Every wide receiver we have has their tendencies. (I) understand more of them and that's what I've learned coming into this year. I'm able to do a lot better job watching film, dissecting that, and learning from that. So I think I'm a lot more mentally ready this year."

Ikegwuonu was not a heavily recruited player. He originally committed to Wisconsin as a grayshirt candidate, but ended up joining the team with the rest of the class of 2004 when camp began that August. At first he was not sure that his skills were up to par, but his confidence has steadily increased.

"I came in with a whole different attitude (this summer)," Ikegwuonu said. "Last year I came in not really knowing what to expect, not really even knowing my capabilities. I wasn't the hottest recruit coming in. I didn't really know the other guys, what their capabilities were. This year I came in knowing that I could compete and play a lot this year. I just had to get better, do a lot of extra work."

When the Badgers would finish an offseason conditioning workout, Ikegwuonu said that he and fellow redshirt freshman cornerback Allen Langford would go into the McClain Center and work on footwork drills.

Langford's career trajectory has mirrored Ikegwuonu's since they arrived at UW. Langford was also expected to play last season when camp broke. But the Badgers never needed to burn his redshirt, and in the second half of the season he and Ikegwuonu moved over to practice with the scout team defense.

"(Secondary) coach (Ron) Lee wanted us to get a lot more reps," Ikegwuonu said. "I think that dealing with the rotation and sitting out and not really getting into… the practice. We were just sitting out there. We weren't getting reps. So we went over to the scout team from time to time to keep our legs going and get us reps."

Now, Langford is competing with Ikegwuonu for the No. 3 corner spot and Ikegwuonu, Langford and second-team free safety Zach Hampton are the most likely nickel defensive backs.

"To really step in there I've got to prove to coach Lee that I can play the nickel just as well as Allen can," Ikegwuonu said.

"I know Al's going to work as hard as I am, and we're hopefully going to work harder than everybody else and try to keep ourselves up at the top of the depth. Hopefully I can get in there. If Al's in there, I'll be happy for him. I know he'll be happy for me."

Ikegwuonu is in the mix despite missing more than a week of practice due to a pulled hamstring.

"I just did a lot of workouts in the pool, trying to loosen it up and doing a lot of icing and heating and stuff like that and trying to rejuvenate the muscle and build it back up," Ikegwuonu said. He expected to be 100 percent this week.

When Ikegwuonu returned from his injury, late in the Badgers' second week of practice, he was thrust right in to the fray, receiving the majority of snaps at one of the first-team cornerback spots.

"(Lee) is looking for guys to step up and I'm taking it as a challenge," Ikegwuonu said. "I know that he's watching every little thing. Every little thing is taped. He can watch everything: back side, front side. He knows if you are loafing, if you are not running for the ball. I'm just trying to step up and hopefully I'll be that guy he calls on next Saturday. I'm just trying to do what I know I'm capable of and I know I'm capable of being great."

Ample speed

During spring testing, the Badger players ran the 40-yard dash twice. Ikegwuonu covered the distance in 4.5 seconds on his first attempt and then ran a 4.38. He said he is credited with a 4.44 because the average of the two runs was considered the official result. "But if people ask I tell them 4.38," Ikegwuonu said with a smile. "Got to tell them the best time."

Ikegwuonu also said that he bench pressed 325 pounds, squatted 490, cleaned 230, ran the shuttle in 4.2 seconds and had a 36 or 37 inch vertical jump.

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