With two sophomores — Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant — holding down starting positions for the first time in college, Wisconsin was ravished by giving up big plays in the secondary in several games. Now, a year later, the Badgers are looking for support from a pair of players converted to safety.
After never playing to the level the coaching staff hoped for last season, Pleasant has been removed from the first-team free safety position. In his place this fall has been Jay Valai. Valai, a heavy-hitting junior despite his diminutive 5-9" frame, was jockeyed around the defensive backfield his first two seasons as the Wisconsin coaching staff searched for the best way to utilize him.
Now finally with a home, Valai has his sights set on doing what he does best: level big blows on opposing players.
"I hope I see you in the hole, because I'm trying to knock you out," Valai said. "It's a dog-eat-dog world, so you better come with it, because I'm coming with it."
As Valai gets more and more comfortable in his new "home" he will improve his coverage game and become more than just a big hitter.
"The more it comes all together, the easier it is," Valai said. "When you don't have to think, you can just react, it's a whole different mindset."
It's one thing for a player to finally find a home after several seasons on the defensive side of the ball. It's entirely different when a player has to switch from catching passes, to knocking them down.
That's the case for Chris Maragos. A junior from Racine, Maragos spent two years as a wide receiver at Western Michigan before deciding to transfer closer to home at UW.
After sitting out a year as required by NCAA transfer rules, Maragos was approached by UW head coach Bret Bielema with a proposal: switch sides of the ball to safety.
"He thought it would really help the team," Maragos said. "I said, "If that's what's going to help our team exceed our goals and get to where we want to get, then I'm all for trying it out."
Lo and behold, Maragos found safety to be to his liking.
"Wide receiver I've been playing my whole life, so I know the ins and outs of the position," Maragos said. "But I think safety's more of a natural position for me, with my body type and just the kind of player I am."
Maragos entered fall camp as the No. 2 strong safety behind Carter. He is also slated to hold down a safety position in the "Badger" package that puts extra defensive backs on the field. He is also using his experience as a wide receiver to his benefit as a safety, reading situations and receivers to jump routes.
"That kind of stuff helps out a lot," Maragos said. "I think I've been able to implement that a lot more in the fall now. I kind of know what I'm doing, so I have a better time reacting."
After sometimes disappointing returns a season ago, Wisconsin is banking Valai and Maragos continue on their learning curve and make the secondary one of the defense's strong points.