A Tasty Treat

Although their amount of experience, backgrounds and styles are different, senior captain Chris Maragos and junior Jay Valai have overcome personal hurdles to make an impact as the top two safeties in UW's secondary, a reason why the two have grown so close over the 2009 season.

HONOLULU – When it comes to snack food, junior safety Jay Valai had to put a handful of Oreo cookies near the top of his list.

So when he was given the task of coming up with a nickname for himself and his running mate at the safety position, senior Chris Maragos, the defense's registered character decided that a scrumptious combination like that would suit the pair just fine.

Two different textures combined to make a wonderful snack; Valai couldn't have been more proud of himself.

"Chris is more of a vanilla ice cream," Valai said. "Combine our two flavors and we felt like that would be a good name for us."

When Maragos heard his newest nickname, adding to the ‘Salt and Pepper' moniker that cornerback Aaron Henry calls the duo, the senior walk-on-turned-scholarship athlete liked the ring.

"I am the cream," Maragos said laughing, "because I am the smooth part of the equation."

Through 11 games, the Maragos-Valai combination has brought a lot of flavor to the Badgers.

Heading into Saturday's match-up against Hawaii (6-6) here at Aloha Stadium, Maragos has been one of the standouts in just his second season playing the safety position. Tied for seventh on the team with 43 tackles, Maragos has made two game-clinching, fourth-quarter plays, batting away a fourth-down pass against Northern Illinois and registering an interception in double overtime Fresno State.

"Being on the defense, you need guys that have a playmaking mentality and guys that are buying into the system," said Maragos, who is responsible for five turnovers this year. "The staff has implemented a lot of different ways to put guys in position to make plays, and I really think we can make some good things happen this year."

Valai on the other hand has been kept on a shorter leash by the coaching staff when it comes to him trying to make the big hit, like he did a season ago when he hit Minnesota running back Shady Salamon so hard that a piece of Salamon's yellow helmet decal flew off.

The concern the coaches have with Valai is that he doesn't play underneath himself, causing him to sometimes fly out on control. While he still has delivered the big hit, Valai has stayed better in coverage, which has provided a boost to UW's secondary.

Thrown in the fact that the 201-pound Valai is trying to recoup the roughly 15 pounds he lost when the H1N1 virus ran through the team prior to the second game against Fresno State, and the journey has been a challenge.

"It's a work in progress everyday," Valai said. "I am learning, but I am trying to have it be a controlled violence, especially with all that adrenaline running through me. Last year, it was either a big hit or a big miss. If I could have made a couple of small plays, who knows what would have happened."

"I've learned how to be smarter. Just being able to play and getting the experience of just being able to see everything, I've come a long way."

The work has shown. Sixth on the team with 45 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, and three passes broken up three passes, Valai was voted to the All-Big Ten Conference second team for the second year in a row by the conference coaches.

Entering fall camp, the safety position was, without question, the place on defense were the most depth resided, with three seniors in Maragos, Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant and Valai, a junior. But when Head Coach Bret Bielema indefinitely suspended Carter and Pleasant for the remainder of the season, the weight of the unit's last line of defense was amplified on Maragos and Valai.

"Those two guys can back and retained the knowledge that they had," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "You can tell that they understand who, what, where and why. That's the best part about it. That right now makes them all better quicker and helps the younger kids learn quicker, too."

The duo have been the vocal leaders throughout the season, pushing teammates to be better in their fundamentals, more consistent in their tackles and more accountable for their mistakes.

"When people starting thinking too much when they are tackling, that's when you start to messing up," Valai said. "People just need to react and miss. There's no hit or miss when you are just playing football and being a football player."

Added Maragos: "Jay and I have always been real confident in our abilities and really felt that we wanted to be the guys. No matter who is around us, we are going to push ourselves harder than anybody."

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