Sophomore Aaron Henry, after missing all of last year recovering from an ACL surgery, has returned and looks better than he did his freshman year. Working hard during Wisconsin's seven-week winter conditioning program wasn't enough for Henry, who claimed to consistently take home exercises and do bonus conditioning at home, trying feverishly to get into football shape. Although he claimed to be gassed at points during the spring, Henry was constantly matched up with Badger sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon and, more often than not, made the play.
"It's all about going out there and taking advantage of every practice," Henry said. "I am trying to create my own path. Just because somebody tears there ACL, it doesn't mean it's over. With some dedication and hard work and preparing every day and every play, (I) just come out and be a student of the game."
In addition to Henry, 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 and will be expected to contribute in UW's nickel package with a year of experience under their pads.
"We've got to be the leaders of the defense," Valai said of the upperclassmen. "It's now or never. If we're not the leaders now, there's something wrong with us. We've got this opportunity to be leaders, and I'm never going to be one if not now, especially as the oldest group on the field. I'm pretty sure the safeties have probably the most starts on the defense, so that should help us out on the football field."
One of those leaders is Maragos. Working out as a high school sophomore, Maragos' dream was to get a scholarship offer from the Badgers. A handful of years, a change of schools and a change of positions later, Maragos has turned himself from an above average tight end to the starting free safety on UW's roster, a role that earned him a scholarship offer a day before the spring game.
"I definitely wanted to expand myself physically, but mentally was really something I had an emphasis on this (past) spring, too," Maragos said. "I think mentally is the key for me right now; keep grasping the defense, getting better at my communication and keep improving overall. Mentally, it was a pretty healthy dose of that in the off season."
Maragos still has nuisances to learn about the safety position, but is tenfold better than a year ago, as he knows his keys, his responsibilities and what he needs to do to become a playmaker. Next to Maragos, however, are three guys trying to bounce back.
The first is Carter, who struggled so mightily last season that he lost his starting job in the sixth game last season and was suspended for the bowl game because of violating team rules. On a mission during spring practices continues to make amends for last year, Carter made four tackles in the spring game, one practice after making a couple nice interceptions, showing that his ball skills are starting to return.
Next is Valai, who did not participate in the spring game as he recovers from off season back surgery. Valai did participate in some drill during the spring and still has the ability to make a big hit, but the big concern with the UW coaches to make sure Valai doesn't get too aggressive and make sure he keeps his feet underneath him when going for the big play.
"Competition brings out the best in them you hope," safety coach Randall McCray said. "It's a wide-open position right now and I don't think anything will be penciled in for a little while. 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."
Lastly is Henry, who had to learn parts of the cornerback position all over again after missing last season, but the Florida native, along with Niles Brinkley, look to bring some talent, experience and youth to the position, as the duo head into the fall as the team's top two cornerbacks.
While Wisconsin seems to have an idea of who will fill the starting spots, there is a group of young corners that are looking to make a push. Sophomores Fenelus and Devin Smith were standouts on special teams last season, both being physical players that weren't afraid to get aggressive when the situation calls for it. Both made strides during the spring and have put themselves in the position to compete for playing time.
"I was kind of glad that I didn't redshirt, even though I didn't play that much on defense," Fenelus said of his first year. "I was glad because I saw how hard the hits hard and seeing what I am going to be going against this upcoming season. I wasn't upset about not redshirting."
One player that chose to redshirt was Texas recruit Marcus Cromartie, who spent the 2008 season in the weight room putting on weight and strength in addition to studying his responsibilities. The work showed, as Cromartie is no longer a stick figure and his intuition on the field was evident, as the redshirt freshman was constantly in the middle of the action trying to break up a play.
"Being a d-b is being consistent," Cromartie said. "I know that there are a few times this spring where I had really good practices and a few times that I know that I could have done better. I am trying to build my consistency and my technique and keep on competing. I know it's going to get there, I just have to be patient."
With the Badgers counting on experience, redemption and youthful corners, the mission of Wisconsin's defense has already been set in stone.
"Bend, but don't break. One year, one goal," said Henry. "Despite losing a lot of guys, we're not going to let that hold us back. This year, expect old Badger football. Rough, tough, in-your-face and talking smack. We are going to be an old-school defense."
Fall Depth Chart:
R-So. Aaron Henry (6-0, 197)
R-Fr. Marcus Cromartie (6-1, 187)
Jr. Niles Brinkley (5-10, 180)
So. Devin Smith (5-11, 187)
So. Antonio Fenelus (5-10, 186)
Jr. Jay Valai (5-9, 200)
Sr. Aubrey Pleasant (6-1, 196)
So. Kevin Claxton (6-2, 208)
Sr. Chris Maragos (6-0, 198)
Sr. Shane Carter (6-2, 202)
R-Fr. Shelton Johnson (6-0, 181)