That’s all it took this past Saturday for redshirt sophomore Michael Trotter to go from backup to starting strong safety on the Wisconsin defense.
While battling in the third quarter of last week’s loss to Oregon State, starting strong safety Shelton Johnson went to fill in on a run play, but was struck in the arm by a teammate’s helmet on the tackle, breaking Johnson’s arm in the process.
Trotter, the backup to both starting safeties, was suddenly thrust into Johnson’s spot in the secondary. But Trotter took the event in stride, mainly because he was prepared to play for another safety before Johnson went down.
“Actually, [starting free safety Dezmen Southward] kind of banged up his ankle so they told me I might get in,” Trotter said. “So I was like, oh, this is my chance. … I was just excited to get out there.”
And even though it wasn’t Southward he ended up replacing, Trotter made the most of his chance as a starter. Showing a good burst of speed on a called safety blitz, Trotter showed off his athleticism and recorded a key sack on third down — all within his first minutes of playing time.
Not bad for a player who only played 25 total snaps a season ago.
While some young players may have come into a hostile road game with big eyes, Trotter was able to tune out any nerves he had. Now the starting strong safety for the immediate future — Johnson is projected to be out up to six weeks — the Badgers’ newest starter is just happy to have a chance to show his talents.
“Against Oregon State, when it was my first time going out there, I didn’t go out there like ‘oh my god,’” Trotter said. “It wasn’t like that. Obviously a lot of people [have been] texting and saying ‘Michael this is your chance’ — I’m not trying to let it get to me. But I’m excited, I’ve been waiting for this for a while.”
Secondary coach Ben Strickland said Trotter’s solid performance last week comes from the safety’s dedication to preparation before the game, specifically his study of film.
“Michael’s done a great job preparing, he always has,” Strickland said. “I think that’s why it was a kind of seamless transition for him to step into the game because he’s prepared for this for a long time. He’s one of the guys you always see in the film room, always see studying the game, so I think it comes easier to him and he uses that strength to his advantage.”
There are other reasons to believe Trotter could be a talented replacement. Besides showing his intellect on and off the field — he was named academic all-Big Ten in 2011 — Trotter seriously competed during fall camp for the starting free safety spot and was a standout prep player at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wis., named the Wisconsin Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
But there will still be a large void to fill with the injury to Johnson. Besides being the fourth leading tackler on the team, Johnson also brought veteran leadership and experience with him to the secondary. Without their redshirt senior captain in the lineup, Southward will have to step in and become the new leader of the defensive backs.
“You have to take on that leadership,” Southward said. “It’s the next man in, you know? And I definitely look at myself as a guy who can take on that role. We like to call our safeties the ‘generals of the defense,’ mostly because the calls come from us on down to everyone else. I’m completely confident with that role because it’s something I prepare for — it’s something I know and I embrace and look forward to going out and being that guy.”
While Southward steps into the role of veteran and Trotter adjusts to life as a starter, the Badgers’ defense still remains desperately in need of a playmaker within their secondary. Wisconsin’s defense only gave up one touchdown to Oregon State last weekend but has already allowed 541 passing yards. On top of that, so far this season, each score through the air the defense has allowed has been a result of miscommunication.
Strickland hopes his two starting safeties understand the importance of the increased responsibilities they have now been given.
“With Michael and Dez, once you step into that role you have nine other guys counting on you,” Strickland said. “So you have to do your job. And I think that shared accountability is something all those guys feel and know that they have to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain.”
And even though he’s not physically able to play, Johnson has shown why he’s one of the captains of this team and a leader of the secondary, even when injured.
“I’m actually supposed to watch film with him right now,” Trotter said. “We’re going to meet today and tomorrow. He’s been really helpful. Yesterday I had a great practice, and today, they threw new stuff out there that I didn’t expect, so we’re going to meet right now and go over it and get it fixed. So, he’s really been helping out.”