MADISON – With two injured starting cornerbacks out before spring camp even started, defensive coaches preached that the silver lining of starters Aaron Henry and Allen Langford being out was that Wisconsin was building its depth at cornerback for the fall.
Boy did they ever.
Five cornerbacks took advantage of the added repetitions and have put themselves in position to see time during Wisconsin's Badger Package, primarily used on third downs.
Freshman cornerback Mario Goins, despite being five inches smaller than wide receiver Kyle Jefferson, consistently was matched up with him during first team drills and performed admirably, staying physical with the receiver to earn a bunch of deflections and incompletion.
The first teamer among the cornerbacks was sophomore Niles Brinkley, who registered interceptions off Dustin Sherer in practice and Scott Tolzien in the spring game. Struggling out of the gate at camp with wide eyes working with the first team and slowly developing, Brinkley turned in his best practice during the spring game, which included a 25-yard interception return off Tolzien.
"Niles Brinkley was competing, knocking a couple balls down," head coach Bret Bielema said. "He's a guy over the last half of spring ball, something just flipped in his head."
Among the second-team corners, junior Josh Nettles was an interception machine in the secondary. Unofficially, he picked off every quarterback except freshman Curt Phillips. He jumped an out rote thrown by Sherer, a pass the junior quarterback has owned throughout camp, and took the ball to the end zone and grabbed another off Evridge on a diving catch.
The only thing that stopped Nettles this spring was a high right ankle sprain he suffered in practice 12, forcing his ankle to be immobilized in a walking cast and forced to miss the last three practices.
"Things have gone very well, besides the injury," Nettles said. "I mean, it's football, it happens but I tried really hard over the course of the spring to improve."
With Nettles being out, fellow junior Prince Moody stepped in and performed well at times. Moody was either spot on, showing his solid instincts picking off a couple Tolzien passes, or he was fooled, as he was burned by moved by a couple wide receivers and John Clay.
The fifth cornerback to see time in the spring was freshman Otis Merrill, who has just as much talent as any of his peers. The problem that Merrill showed throughout camp was how easily frustrated he could become. Whenever Merrill was fooled on a play and out raced, Merrill would quit on the play, enduring the wrath of the coaches.
"Otis has got a lot of gifted talent just because of the way he was made," Bielema said. "He's had a tendency to slack off at the end of plays. He was on a man route there, he got picked and basically just gave up on the play. I said ‘Hey next year when we're playing Michigan, you get picked, you can't give up in front of 80,000 people. If you're going to do that, you're not going to do it on this field.'"
With the Badgers charting every good and bad play throughout practice, Merrill led the defense with 45 bad plays, including a team-worst 21 ‘loafs.'
With Wisconsin rotating in five new cornerbacks this spring, the injury situation has allowed for the Badgers to add to their depth when Henry and Langford come back in the fall.
While injuries kept the starting corners out, all the safeties were available this spring and saw continuous reps. The result: the free safety position being solidified and the strong safety position battle just beginning.
Even in half pads, junior free safety Shane Carter always provided the big hit. Whether it was on incumbent starter Kyle Jefferson or newcomer Isaac Anderson, Carter was right there when the ball arrived, throwing a hand at the ball or laying a shoulder into a receiver's back, doing whatever he could to make sure the pass went incomplete.
Backing up Carter at the start of spring was junior Kim Royston but that only lasted a couple of practices, as the junior left the program after being frustrated about his playing time. That opened the door for junior-transfer Chris Maragos, who played wide receiver his whole life and knew nothing about being a safety, let alone a backup safety.
After a couple of practices of struggles, Maragos had his best week of practice in the final week and had one of the best plays in the spring game, jumping in front of an Allan Evridge pass for the acrobatic interception.
"That was an awesome play by Maragos," Evridge said. "My hat goes off to him. Maragos just wanted that football."
With his solid camp, Maragos has played himself into a position in the Badger Package where his teammates hope to see more of what they saw during camp.
"Those were some freaking catches," strong safety Jay Valai said. "I know that I was stunned myself. Chris has come a long way. He is still wondering what's going on sometimes but I do know that he's flying to the ball. Those receiver skills certainly helped him make those catches."
While the rotations for the free safety will be Carter then Maragos, the starting strong safety was the position battle to watch in spring between Valai and junior Aubrey Pleasant.
Pleasant was named the starter at the beginning of last year's fall camp, struggled to master the position and lost his starting job to Valai, who rotated with Pleasant to help stop the bleeding.
With both players listed as co-number ones on the depth chart and seeing plenty of time against the first-team offense, Valai continued to thrive and improve while Pleasant seemed to stay in neutral. Valai was a constant presence around the football in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, made plenty of interceptions and was not afraid to lay a hit on somebody.
One of Valai's best plays came in the spring game, when he quickly adapted to a Tolzien deflection and made a diving interception.
"I don't know what happened. I got up, saw the ball was in my hands so me and Jae (McFadden) started dancing," he said. "I was excited for that play."
When asked about the battle between him and Aubrey, Valai knew that he would have to come into spring camp ready for a competition. Through 15 practices, Valai come easily be seen stepping up to the challenge.
"Competition makes you better," Valai said. "If you don't have anybody pushing you, what's the point? It's going to be a hell of a battle and we're going to make our team better in the long run."
Cornerback of Camp: Niles Brinkley
Safety of Camp: Chris Maragos
Projected Starters: Aaron Henry and Allen Langford with Brinkley and Nettles involved in the Badger Package at cornerback, Shane Carter at free safety and Jay Valai at strong safety.