Longing for a start

UW senior Levonne Rowan is competing to improve his status from No. 3 cornerback to starter

When senior Levonne Rowan takes the field for the University of Wisconsin football team on Saturday he will see it on either side of him. When he lines up he will do so along with the ones who now have it. He will do whatever he can, working to prove to everyone that he deserves it back.

What is "my spot"?

Rowan, an admitted Jeopardy fanatic, sees the two cornerback contestants standing around him as clear as anyone else. However, to Rowan they are not just the starting corners, but corners whose positions were once his to lose.

Senior Brett Bell won it from him last year. As a sophomore, Rowan started in place of an injured Bell for much of the season. When 2004 came around, Rowan fully expected to win the starting job. Instead he was the unlucky recipient of an inflamed plantar fascia. The injury to his right foot gave him a limp he would battle through until a hip pointer completely sidelined him for the season opener.

Freshman Allen Langford snatched it from him this year. Rowan arrived to camp in terrific shape; prepared to make the impact he has always felt himself capable of. Then he severely cut his leg in practice, requiring surgery to remove pieces of turf stuck in the wound. Upon his return, he made mistakes in the opener against Bowling Green, prompting coaches to use Langford in his place. Langford started the next game and each one since.

"I didn't start practicing until that Monday before the game," Rowan said. "My conditioning wasn't up. That isn't an excuse. I messed up a few times on my technique. But I feel like I'm back now and I'm in better shape.

"I feel like I should be back in my spot soon."

Rowan may indeed take the field as a starter on Saturday depending on the circumstances. However, the opportunity will not come at the expense of the other corners. Instead, Rowan could very well start as a fifth defensive back or potentially in place of the strong safety, a role that Rowan is receiving increased time at against three-receiver sets.

"I think sometimes when you get a spread team that you know is going to pass, you're going to have a corner out there instead of a safety," said defensive backs coach Ron Lee. "We'll put him out there as an extra coverage guy."

At this point of the season Rowan envisioned a different scenario. When asked whether being the third cornerback in a 4-3-4 set is unusual for him, Rowan smiled and jokingly responded, "Yeah, I'd usually be starting."

Right now, however, Rowan will need to take what he can get. A long season may bring him another chance at the opportunity he craves. Rowan is confident in himself and talented to boot. A 4.3-second 40-yard dash gives him raw speed that cannot be coached and is tough to beat when he is playing at his best. Coaches are telling Rowan to just keep working hard in practice.

"As a senior this is your last dance," Lee said. "When a guy has been out like he has and another guy comes in and starts playing, you just can't give [the job] back. You may love the person but you coach the player."

Fans may see a lot more of Rowan this week due to the offense the Badgers will face Saturday. First year Indiana head coach Terry Hoeppner likes to use multiple offenses, but will often feature three wideouts.

Sophomore quarterback Blake Powers has spread the field in leading the Hoosiers to three straight wins to open the year. Powers completed touchdowns to seven different players over that time. That means more work for the UW secondary, as well as a chance for Rowan to prove why he deserves ‘his spot' back.

"I like [IU's receivers] a lot," said defensive coordinator Bret Bielema. "They're kind of a trial by committee. They've got three tight ends they use well. They get their backs out of the backfield and get them situations that they can make plays in the passing game."

Redshirt freshman James Hardy leads the Indiana receiving corps with 266 yards and three touchdowns. Hardy, a forward on the IU basketball team, will try to use his 6-foot-7 frame to elevate over the Badgers' defensive backs.

"They do a lot of different things to try to get him in position to be one-on-one with a corner," Bielema said. "He's a guy that obviously knows how to go up and get the football and he's got a height advantage built in naturally."

This UW secondary has been a target of criticism for many in the media. A rough start against Bowling Green prompted a shake-up in week two that included Langford and strong safety Joe Stellmacher in place of Rowan and Johnny White. The unit improved against Temple and North Carolina, and White stepped up in a very large way against Michigan when Stellmacher suffered an injury.

The Badgers still allowed some big plays to the Wolverines and Lee noted that he could always find places for improvement. What Lee does like though is the hustle out of his team, three weeks after their technique came under question against Bowling Green.

"One thing I am pleased with is that they're competing," Lee said. "We may not play the smartest game all the time, but the effort has been great."

That is exactly what Rowan needs to do now is keep competing, according to Lee. He said it was a learning curve getting Rowan back to full speed after yet another demoralizing injury. Nothing is set in stone as far as the depth chart is concerned. The coaching staff repeatedly stresses that they judge players on a week-to-week basis. Showing up to play in both practice and games will always make a difference.

"It isn't easy," Rowan said. "I'm still fighting to try and get back in my spot. I've just got to keep making plays when I'm in there and continue to work hard. That's all I can do."

As the current odd man out, Rowan now sits in the position he filled for much of the second half of last season — fifth defensive back. Bielema pointed out after Wednesday's practice that players on all units, including the secondary, could go down with an injury, creating opportunities for the players waiting in reserve. Rowan may be in his final season at Wisconsin, but the Badgers still have a lot of football left to play.

"There have been guys that have got nicked up, dinged up," Bielema said. "If somebody goes down, the next guy is in. I'm not hoping somebody goes down this weekend but if anything happens its got to be the next guy in."

It has been a tough show so far for Rowan, but with the Badgers 4-0 the senior could be looking at a special final team, one that may need him to start sooner or later. One thing can still work in Rowan's favor. People tend to judge the contestant based on the way they finish — Final Jeopardy.

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