Spring Position Preview: Defensive Backs

With the Wisconsin football team starting its 15-spring practice slate this week, Badger Nation dives into the position battles. Last but not least, we focus on the defensive backs, a position that loses only one starter and has the most experience depth of any position the Badgers have.

MADISON – Aaron Henry, missing all of last year recovering from an ACL surgery, has returned and looks better than he did his freshman year.

Junior Jay Valai (12 starts at strong safety), senior Shane Carter (seven starts at free safety), senior Chris Maragos (six starts at free safety) and junior Niles Brinkley (seven starts) all return have plenty of game experience from 2008.

True freshmen Kevin Claxton, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith all contributed on special teams and in certain packages last season.

Throw all that good news with the fact that nobody in the Badger secondary is missing time due to injury and things are looking up for a unit that struggled at points last season.

"We've got a lot of guys that have contributed, but now we need guys to refine their skills and become difference makers," assistant coach Kerry Cooks said. "All the small details can make a big difference for us."

"It's a wide-open position right now and I don't think anything will be penciled in for a little while," added Randall McCray, who is coaching the safeties this year. "We don't want to pencil anything or tell them who is starting. We've got some experience back there and we want that experience to start leading our defense."

As McCray sees it, the Badgers have five capable players – Valai, Carter, Maragos, Aubrey Pleasant and Shelton  Johnson – competing for two open positions, competition that McCray hopes will spark competition.

"The great thing we've got at the safety position is we've got competition," he added. "Competition should bring out the best in all of them."

In his first season as a starter, Valai earned a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore, totaling 56 tackles, forced three fumbles and earned the reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the Big Ten with a hit against Minnesota that knocked part of the U-M decal off the Gophers' helmet.

"I can tell my kids to you tube me now," Valai said with a laugh. "'Go You Tube your father, son.'"

With Valai beginning the spring on the sideline because of offseason surgery, senior Aubrey Pleasant, with his 41 career game experience, has made sure there's been no drop off at the position.

Opposite Valai is Maragos, a former walk-on that started six of the last eight games in 2008 and finished the season seventh on the team with 45 tackles and added an interception against Illinois.

Backing up Maragos, and trying to get back in the coaching staff's good graces, is Carter, who started all 13 games as a sophomore and finished with a Big Ten-leading seven interceptions.

But poor tackling, the major issue with Carter's game, caused him to lose his starting job to Maragos midway through the season and then finished the season being suspended by UW coach Bret Bielema for the Champs Sports Bowl.

Carter, who started out his UW career as a wide receiver and was moved to safety by Bielema, has been working primarily with the second team throughout spring camp.

Even with Mario Goins currently suspended by head coach Bret Bielema, the cornerbacks might be the deepest position the Badgers have on defense.

Niles Brinkley is another player that made the switch from wide receiver to cornerback early in his career. Last season, Brinkley played in all 13 games, starting the final six games, and finished with four interceptions and was second to Langford with 13 pass break ups. Right now, Brinkley looks to be in the lead for one of the starting corner positions.

The other corner role looks to go to Henry, who looks to have regain the speed and playmaking skills of his freshman campaign; a season where he registered 38 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception.

Smith and Fenelus played as true freshmen on special teams and slowly started to find their way onto the field in certain defensive packages. Otis Merrill, after Bielema challenged him by taking away his No.4 jersey until he earns it, has been looking more focused this spring and promising freshman Marcus Cromartie has thrown his hat into the ring after effectively covering some of UW's top receivers during the first two weeks of spring ball, giving UW a boatload of talented players to throw into the mix.

"We got a lot of guys that have a lot of confidence and want to get on the field and make some plays," Valai said to UWBadgers.com. "Like I said, the DB's in ‘09 have a lot of swag on that field. Hopefully we'll go and translate it over."

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