Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

As the calendar turns to August, the countdown to Wisconsin's 2010 football season has officially begun. Between now and the start of camp on August 9th, Badger Nation will extensively breakdown every position. Today, we examine the defensive backs, a position that experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs.

MADISON - The message entering the 2010 fall camp for the Wisconsin secondary is simple: find a sense of consistency. For a group that experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows, consistency would although the heart rate to remain at a acceptable level.

After giving up 396 passing yards in a win over Michigan State, the Badgers limited their next four opponents to an average of 164 passing yards, a run punctuated by holding Purdue to season lows of 81 passing yards and 141 total yards.

After giving up 323 passing yards to Indiana, UW responded by holding Michigan, then the conference's top-scoring offense, to just seven second-half points, only to be picked apart by Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka a week later, who torched UW for 364 passing yards in a two-point loss.

How would the Badgers' respond against one of the top pass offenses in the country two weeks later? They limited Hawaii to just 197 yards through the air, their lowest total of the season.

Wisconsin's defense finished a respectable 17th in the country last season, giving up 305.7 yards per game during a rugged 13-game schedule. Dig deeper and it's fair to note that 71 percent of those yards were passing yards and most of them were on a big play. Six teams on UW's 09 schedule had a pass play for over 40 yards (MSU had one for 91 and Fresno State had one for 70). Furthermore, Wisconsin gave up 60 percent of its points in the second and fourth quarters, a big reason the Badgers ranked 56th nationally in pass defense (217.5 yards per game).

Those are problem areas first-year secondary coach Chris Ash is well aware of and focused on changing.

Wisconsin returns its two main cornerbacks – senior Niles Brinkley and junior Devin Smith – from last season, who both had their share of ups and downs after being named UW's starting cornerbacks prior to the Purdue game. The year of experience will certainly be beneficial, and was something Ash made sure the group absorbed during the spring.

Ash received rave reviews from his students for the way he coaches - right in the guys' faces, giving instruction, feedback and criticism, a stark change from the more passive approach of former secondary coach Kerry Cooks. Ash's coaching style is derived from wanting his players to reach their full potential more quickly and demanding accountability.

"How do you hold them accountable? You stress the details and the little things, and it's the constant feedback, the constant coaching to re-emphasize and reinforce the points you're trying to make," Ash said. "The goods, the bads, everything you see and that's just how I have been brought up. Evolving as a coach, I don't believe in sitting back and wait to the meeting room to coach things. I like to coach up tempo, get after things and be enthusiastic."

And the style has worked, forcing players to recover more quickly from bumps and bruises to get back in order to soak up the knowledge. Prime examples of that are Brinkley and Smith. After missing two weeks of spring practices with a strained hamstring, Brinkley broke up two passes in a span of three plays in the spring game, against the Cardinal squad comprised of starters.

Smith had a rough, inconsistent start to spring, but made significant gains during UW's spring practice schedule. His change came from learning to be better focused, and a winter working primarily on his technique.

"I definitely feel more confident and that the younger guys are starting to look up to me," Smith said. "I just have to keep building my confidence every single day, but to be sure that I am down and focusing on making plays every single play that comes to me. I also have to make sure that I am helping out my defense and taking care of my responsibility every single time."

As improved as Brinkley and Smith are, no two players made more strides defensively than sophomore Antonio Fenelus and junior Aaron Henry.

A standout special teams player his freshman year, Fenelus started from week three to week eight, but his struggles in coverage forced the coaches to start Brinkley in front of him. After a slow start to spring, Fenelus became, according to Bielema, the most consistent cornerback over the 15 practices, giving the Badgers three viable contributors.

"I felt we should have some healthy competition," Bielema said. "Coach Cooks, when he was leaving, I asked him to fill out a bio sheet on all the DBs. One of the things he said was that Antonio was probably our toughest competitor in the group. I know that about Antonio. He's hungry."

Since registering 38 tackles and one interception in his first 12 games of his freshman season, Henry went through ACL surgery, a redshirt season, a bout with the H1N1 virus and seeing his confidence deteriorate as his skills turned rusty.

But spending the last six months working at the safety position, studying film with former UW safeties Jim Leonard and Chris Maragos and staying true to his faith, Henry experience a rebirth in his game and his confidence, giving the Badgers a player with game experience to start opposite senior strong safety Jay Valai (51 tackles, 3.5 TFLs), another player hoping to bounce back from a so-so season. Valai, entering his third season as the Badgers' starter at strong safety, is a two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection with 111 career tackles.

With an experienced group returning, the Badgers can afford to give more reps to redshirt freshmen Dezmen Southward and Conor O'Neill, former St. Thomas Aquinas players the Badgers worked at cornerback and free safety, respectively. Southward, a raw athlete who has played organized football for only two seasons, is arguably the fastest person on the team and is very gifted, athletic and talented. O'Neill started as a linebacker, but his range and athletic ability made him a natural safety.

A group that has responded to the transition and has heeded the challenge to become more consistent, the Badgers' four experienced veterans are looking to be in lockdown mode throughout the 12-game schedule.

"They are coming in to learn all the time," Ash said. "That's what has stood out to me any more than one person. These guys want to be coached, they want to do good and they want to try and help us out there win a Big Ten Championship."

The likely scenario

Wisconsin grabbed 15 interceptions last season, but only five came from cornerbacks and only one came from outside Smith and Brinkley. There are a lot of players that can step in and contribute in the Wisconsin secondary to make that number go up.

The key is to figure out how good they can contribute at. Smith and Brinkley will hold down the top spots entering camp, but Antonio Fenelus showed during spring the he was capable of handling more responsibilities. Problem was that when given more responsibilities during the 2009 season, Fenelus struggles and lost his starting role. While he's one of the toughest UW cornerbacks, he'll have to improve that he is the most reliable.

Valai is finally healthy and at his comfortable playing weight, which will help him have a bounce back season. But if anyone needs a bounce back season, however, it's Henry. Henry hasn't been the same since the ACL injury he suffered preparing for the 2008 Outback Bowl, but showed a renewed sense of play.

To read more in-depth breakdowns just like this one and other stories on the Wisconsin football season, order your 32-page UW football season preview magazine. Contact Benjamin Worgull for more information or to order your five dollar copy today.

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