Cornerback is one of, if not the hardest position on the football field.
The route of the receiver lined up across from you dictates your every move and while he’s acting, you’re relegated to reacting. You need to be quick and agile to cover lightning-fast wideouts, but you must also have the physicality and toughness to bring down a 230-pound running back when he breaks one outside.
It’s hard. It requires rare athleticism. And it’s a position that inherits a ton of blame.
The Wisconsin cornerbacks have received more blame than anyone over the past few seasons and until this year some of it was justified.
But in 2010, with the Badgers sporting an 8-1 record and the No.7 ranking in the BCS standings (wow that felt amazing to type), the UW cornerbacks are worthy of some serious applause.
In my years attending Badger games, one of the more common phrases uttered from some random kid two rows behind me in Section P was something like this: “Dude our corners suck. They give like a 15-yard cushion and have no idea how to tackle. Let’s start the wave”.
For a while it was tough to dispute those sentiments regarding the corners, especially the tackling part.
Missed tackles crippled the Badger D at times in 2009 and it was a glaring weakness in 2008.
But finally in 2010, the secondary was shaken up. Former defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks left for Notre Dame to become the linebackers coach (no comment) and Chris Ash stepped in as his replacement.
If there was one thing, one singular aspect of the cornerbacks’ games Ash wanted to correct, it was tackling. As a result, the starting corners Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus have refined their technique and aside from one dreadful play against Arizona State, they’ve made constant missed tackles a thing of the past.
Against Purdue Saturday, Fenelus led the team with nine tackles, all of which were solo.
That stat says two things.
One: Fenelus is wrapping up and limiting yards after catch like he should.
Two: Offenses don’t want to test Brinkley.
It’s become obvious over the past few games that offensive coordinators have come to respect Brinkley and they’d rather target Fenelus.
Ever since Brinkley put forth that tremendous effort against the Buckeyes, where he ran stride-for-stride with Devier Posey all night, opposing teams shy away from his side of the field.
Sean Robinson rarely threw at him, and one of the few times he did the senior corner got a hand on the ball and caused an interception.
The Wisconsin coaching staff has always reiterated that Brinkley was their most gifted corner and the one with the best ball-skills, and while teams might shy away from him, the Badgers are comfortable with Fenelus patrolling the other side of the field.
“Antonio is really playing good football for us, him and Niles, as long as I’ve been the head coach those guys have been playing pretty good,” Bielema said. “Everyone says if you’ve got one great corner they are going to find a bad one, but these guys have been pretty balanced.”
Teams are choosing to test Fenelus and he’s standing tall. The common perception is that the Badger cornerbacks are UW’s major weakness, but that label has more to do with the visibility of the position than anything else.
Part of what makes the cornerback position so hard is the fact that one mistake can become a 50-yard touchdown. And every single corner, whether they play on Saturdays or Sundays, gets beat.
It’s the nature of the position. A corner could play great 98% of the time, but one blown assignment or misplayed pass becomes the singular moment fans remember.
The key is limiting those big plays, making sure everything stays in front of you, which brings us back to common criticism I spoke of earlier – the large cushion the corners tend to give.
Look, I know a quick 11-yard curl route on first down that gets picked up effortlessly can be frustrating. I know most fans want to see the UW corners press opposing wideouts and take away that short pass.
But that’s just not how this team wins games. The focus has always been to restrict big plays at all costs. Make the opponent earn it.
So yeah, with press coverage you might see the UW corners break up that quick curl route. You’d also be a lot more likely to see them get beat on a double move a few plays later.
Next to tackling the Badger corners have been excellent in shutting down the deep ball, and keep in mind they are having this success with a practically non-existent pass rush. J.J. Watt has shown the all-conference ability to fight off double-teams and grab a sack every once in a while, but for the most part the UW D-line has struggled to create pressure.
In essence, the entire defense has played with this “cushion” mentality. This defense has given up yards, they’ve been reluctant to get aggressive with their blitzes and they’ve been the ones vulnerable on third downs, but since that loss at Michigan State they’ve found a way to make the stops they need to and they’ve prevented big plays.
Wisconsin has given up just 13 red zone touchdowns (second fewest in the Big Ten), they’ve forced field goals and they’ve let their potent offense control the game.
So why play off the receivers? Because there is absolutely no need to risk the big play. The cushion has been a formula for success this season due to the improved tackling once a catch is made.
Like every other corner on the planet, criticisms will come when a mistake inevitably occurs. But Brinkley and Fenelus have done their jobs. They’ve made sure tackles in one-on-one situations and have limited big plays over the top.
So accept the cushion and let this defense bend, because through nine games they’ve proven that as a unit they’re not willing to break.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Still unwilling to give the Wisconsin corners some credit? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.