While the new Wisconsin offense deals with a position battle made up almost entirely of well-groomed quarterbacks, their secondary is trying to fill a critical void left by three exiting seniors. Going into the new season, only one member of the pass defense will have played major minutes last season. Through this, experience is not an option.
Secondary coaches Bill Busch and Ben Strickland need to replace cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie, along with safety Shelton Johnson, who all left big marks on the Big Ten last season. The trio accumulated 175 tackles, 25 pass break-ups, 34 passes defended and two forced fumbles. In addition, Smith was an All-Big Ten selection (second team media, honorable selection by coaches) and Cromartie was a consensus honorable mention for a team that placed third in the conference last season in pass defense efficiency.
“The toughness and savvy that they had was immeasurable,” senior safety Dezmen Southward, who had seven tackles in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, said. “You can be as talented as you want to be, but if you don’t have those snaps under your belt, then you are going to miss something.”
Southward is the only returning member of last year’s secondary and was a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2012.
“[To be a successful defensive back in the Big Ten] you have to be dependable, consistent, smart and tough,” Southward said. “If you’re all of those things, then you have a chance to be really good.”
In order to compensate for the experience they’ve lost, the Badgers know they have to focus and get as much training in as possible in the spring, so by the time fall rolls around, they won’t be looking like a deer in headlights.
“We don’t have to win a game right now,” Strickland said. “We just have to win the day; get better today, and move forward.”
Busch noted that it is “always difficult [to replace seniors],” but added “we’ll be fine because these kids are great kids and they’re going to do a great job.”
That group of “kids” to which Busch referred includes sophomore cornerback Darius Hillary, junior safety Michael Trotter, junior corner Peniel Jean, and a four-star freshman recruit from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., cornerback Sojourn Shelton. While this group may be young and fairly inexperienced at the moment, they all share a quality of a successful Big Ten secondary player: toughness.
“There are no successful safeties in the Big Ten who aren’t tough,” Busch said bluntly. “You have to be able to do a lot of things [at the safety position] from coverage to the run game, but at the end of the day you have to be tough.”
If that is the case, then this group of young Badgers could be in line for a great deal of success down the road.
“There’s not one guy in this group who I wouldn’t say is tough,” Southward said. “We have guys that will come after you and who will put their face on your face play-after-play. It’s a great thing to have because in the Big Ten you’re always going up against big backs like [Le'veon] Bell or [Montee] Ball.”
Being able to have short-term memory and the ability to bring a clean slate to each and every play is something that jumps right off the bat when talking about this group’s mental toughness; that is something that is almost unheard of with such a young and experienced group of players.
For a defense that gave up just 193.6 passing yards per game last season – good for fifth in the Big Ten – and going through multiple coaching changes, it is calming to see that these young guns are showing signs of the potential that this group could reach if used to its full potential.
“We have a lot of talent here,” Southward said. “And all of the players definitely have the ability to play at this level. Once we get the little things down, that’s when their talent will show.”
While it’s nice to have talent, nothing is given to you at the Division 1 level; there are never any guarantees. Nevertheless, Strickland and Southward both feel they’re seeing the right mindset through the first few weeks of camp.
“You hear a lot of coaches say there’s a lot of ‘want to’ and we definitely have that here,” Strickland said. “They all want to be great players so they work at it, they invest themselves while they’re here in practice, and they see themselves improving everyday.”
For his part, Southward agrees: “The will, the want to learn and go out and give it everything in practice is there in our group – more than I’ve seen in a while. They may not be doing everything right, but they care a lot and the effort is there.”