When the Wisconsin secondary lines up for the season opener against Northern Iowa this September, there will be an unfamiliar absence in the backfield.
With the departures of Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, the two most celebrated members of the Badgers’ secondary last season, the team lost two of its most critical defensive playmakers. Without Henry at free safety and Fenelus at cornerback, the pressure now falls upon a group of upperclassmen to anchor the backfield this season.
Safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward, along with cornerbacks Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith will try to fill the void of two all-Big Ten honorees that started every game over the last two seasons. Three of the expected starters — Johnson, Cromartie and Smith — are heading into their final year gracing the Camp Randall field, a fitting time to fill the shoes of their distinguished predecessors.
“Since we’re the two oldest players in the secondary, we feel as if it’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t take for granted what the players that came before us did,” Cromartie said. “And we continue the tradition in the DB room of just being what we call ourselves, the ‘Badger Bad Boys.’”
Perhaps the toughest component of the Badger Bad Boys to replace will be Henry, the emotional leader of a Wisconsin defense that could often be spotted leading post-game prayers. The 6-foot tall safety finished the season tied for the team lead with four interceptions and was tops among defensive backs with 67 tackles.
Fenelus, one of the Badgers’ best on-ball defenders, also grabbed four picks and managed 58 tackles despite his undersized 5-foot-9, 190-pound frame.
Johnson, who was a starter in the 2011 season for the first time of his career, is perhaps the most proven of the bunch. With 54 tackles and four interceptions of his own last season, the Carrollton, Texas, native is more comfortable than ever in his role as a starter.
“Confidence, honestly,” Johnson said when asked how his experience on the field in 2011 helped ready him for his senior season. “I feel lightyears ahead of where I was at this point last year. Just being able to get that on-field experience, that real-time, battlefield experience it really helps you in the long run.”
The senior safety also noted that he’s been bulking up in the weight room this offseason after feeling his performance declined when his weight followed accordingly last year.
Although he also has significant experience in the Wisconsin backfield, Cromartie — who stepped in for Smith after he suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the year — has yet to match the numbers of his fellow Texan. Finishing with 47 tackles in the first year where he saw significant playing time, Cromartie showed flashes of brilliance but failed to provide the consistency of Fenelus, his fellow starting cornerback.
After spending extra hours in the film room and learning to read opposing defenses, the fifth-year senior is hoping to bring a new level of precision to his game.
“Trying to get my technique right, trying to be a technician on everything I do,” Cromartie said of what he’s been focusing on this offseason. “I don’t want anybody to catch on me, I want to be upset if somebody catches the ball on me, I want to take it personally.”
Although co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said there’s no way to replace what Fenelus and Henry provided in both their unique defending styles on the field and their support off it, he has seen promising development from the new leaders of his secondary. With Johnson and Cromartie both toting a year of starting experience under their belt, they seem ready to fulfill the Wisconsin defense’s “next man in” mantra.
Ash, approaching his second season as co-chair of the defense, has seen both a deeper understanding of the game and confidence between the hash marks from his secondary.
“They’re just playing faster — they know how to line up faster, they know how to read their keys faster, they know how to react faster and they’re getting to the ball faster,” Ash said.
But after surrendering 276 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air against the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl with the now-departed seniors on the field, questions still surround the UW secondary.
Johnson — the early favorite to reign as the backfield’s most threatening presence — admits that he’s feeling the pressure heading into this season. But he also realizes it’s his final run on the field, his last opportunity to become the Henry-esque leader of this revamped secondary.
Cromartie and Johnson, who live with Fenelus, believe that after arriving in Madison together nearly five years ago, they’re ready to fill the rather sizable shoes of two future NFL players. Together, the two seem to possess the unspoken reads and silent switches critical to any pass-thwarting backfield, and now, as seniors, will see just how far that can take them against the Big Ten’s most potent offenses.
“I think the chemistry’s always been there; I think each individual person had to get more comfortable with their role on the team,” Johnson said.