They have developed a bond through competition, building each other up while pressing for playing time.
Redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu have seen their roles grow since the beginning of this season. As the Badgers' secondary continues to face challenges, and crave improvement, much of its fortune will depend on two of the team's youngest players.
They will figure prominently in the outcome Saturday, when No. 14 Wisconsin (5-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) travels to Evanston to face Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) and its potent offense under the direction of four-year starting quarterback Brett Basanez.
Just five games into their careers they are two of UW's top defensive backs. Langford won a starting spot the second week of the season and is arguably UW's best cover man. Ikegwuonu has secured the No. 3 corner role.
Last week against Indiana, Langford had his first career interception. However, it came after his friend Ikegwuonu snagged the first of his career.
"We have a little wager to see who has the most picks," Ikegwuonu said with a broad smile.
That sort of competitive expression began in spring practices, when Langford and Ikegwuonu challenged each other to see who could run the fastest and who could snag the most interceptions, among other benchmarks.
"Me and Jack are just competitive people," Langford said. "We just want to be like that because going into the year you never know what's happening. Me and him might be on the field at the same time, you never know. And even if we are not, next year it's bound to be me and Jack. We want to get that attitude and competitiveness right now."
"They (are) actually competing against each other to see who can make more plays and that's great," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "You've got to have that. You know one guy makes a play the other is going to come out, upstage him. That's good to see."
Their friendship developed through shared experiences. During their first fall training camp last season, Langford and Ikegwuonu appeared set to play as true freshmen. But the Badgers' veteran defensive backfield did not provide an opening and they ended up redshirting.
A spirited camaraderie grew between them as they continued to assume similar places on the Badgers' depth chart. After being the fifth and sixth corners in 2004, they spent the spring jostling for a first-team spot opposite Levonne Rowan, while senior starter Brett Bell recovered from offseason surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
When Rowan was injured during fall camp, Ikegwuonu and Langford again worked with the first team, this time opposite Bell.
Rowan and Bell were the opening day starters. Langford, however, out-performed Rowan in the season opener against Bowling Green and leapfrogged into the starting lineup. Last week, Ikegwuonu took over the nickel spot.
"Jack practiced well last week," Lee said. "That was the big key. He practiced well and it carried over."
Ikegwuonu (6-foot, 199 pounds) and Langford (5-11, 187) have similar builds and a similar frame of mind on the field. They both like to get up in a receiver's face and play press man-to-man coverage, which the Badgers used on 40-50 snaps last week, according to Lee.
"I love it," Lee said of that type of corner.
"If I had my way I'll go press man every down," Lee said. "As long as you can."
Langford and Ikegwuonu talk of becoming shutdown cornerbacks. Ikegwuonu hopes to press for a starting spot this year while Langford strives to perform like his football idol, former University of Michigan and current Oakland Raiders star Charles Woodson.
"I want to develop into a shutdown corner where they don't want to throw the ball my way and if they do throw the ball my way, it's my ball," Langford said.
There was at least one area where the pair used to diverge noticeably. Langford was rather soft spoken until recently. As he has progressed as a starter, however, Langford's verbosity has begun to approach Ikegwuonu-like levels.
"That comes to you with confidence, becoming more vocal," Lee said of Langford. "Still don't talk enough but he is getting better."
Langford and Ikegwuonu are also similar in that they committed to UW late in the recruiting process.
Ikegwuonu, a Madison Memorial product, committed in late January 2004, about a week before singing day. He initially accepted a grayshirt, which would have brought him into the UW program in January 2005. Roster attrition, however, gave Ikegwuonu an opportunity to join the team for fall camp in August 2004.
Langford originally committed to Indiana, then switched course and gave a verbal commitment to the Badgers in late December 2003, during his senior year at Detroit's Cass Tech. Hoosier redshirt freshman receivers James Hardy and James Bailey would have been Langford's classmates in Bloomington.
Hardy got the better of UW's secondary for the most part, but Langford intercepted a pass intended for him in the second quarter. Ikegwuonu had stepped in from of a ball thrown to Bailey for his pick on IU's previous possession.
"I think they know now they can actually play the ball and make a play," Lee said. "And they both were tough picks. It wasn't like it was thrown to them.
"On Jack's he actually undercut the receiver to make the play. On Allen's the ball was actually thrown behind and Allen did a great job of jamming Hardy. He couldn't get off the line so the quarterback had to throw it or get hit. He threw the ball and Allen had to come back across his body to make the play. I think those are great confidence boosters."
It is fitting that Langford's and Ikegwuonu's first interceptions occurred in tandem.