Jay Valai is no stranger to being vocal. Wisconsin’s chatter-happy strong safety is typically the loudest voice in the Badger secondary, on and off the field. But now, Valai has some competition when it comes to owning the eardrums of UW’s defensive backs.
Meet Chris Ash.
As UW’s new secondary coach, Ash joins a team with both Rose Bowl aspirations and a group of defensive backs that will need drastic improvement if those aspirations are to be met. The Badgers’ pass defense ranked just 55th in the nation last season, good for just sixth in the Big Ten. If Wisconsin truly wants to challenge Ohio State and Iowa for a conference title in 2010, it’s clear the play of its defensive backs must improve.
Valai, the unofficial captain of the secondary — as well as one of the Badgers’ six team captains — believes his unit will live up to the lofty expectations.
“I think we’re going to show a lot of people we’re not the same secondary from last year,” he said.
On paper though, they are. Valai returns as the starting strong safety, joined by senior Aaron Henry, who is making the transition from cornerback to free safety. And while the depth chart has yet to name a top-two tandem of corners, Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie are in a heated competition for the starting spots. The only major loss is Chris Maragos, who Henry will replace at safety.
As it turns out, the biggest addition to UW’s defensive backs unit won’t ever step foot on the field.
“I think the secret or key ingredient to our secondary is the new addition of our coach, Chris Ash,” Henry said. “He’s doing a tremendous job with us.”
Ash, who came to Madison from Iowa State, has a proven track record for coaching strong defensive back corps. Last season, the Cyclones were ninth in the nation in takeaways with 32. In 2005, Iowa State led the Big 12 in interceptions with 22.
Coming over in February, Ash replaced Kerry Cooks, who left UW for a position at Notre Dame. He joined the program not knowing a lot about the unit he was inheriting — and that’s the way he wanted to keep it.
“I watched some tape from last year; I didn’t pay attention to a lot of it because I didn’t want my mind to be cluttered by what had happened before,” Ash said. “Everyone had a fresh start with me.”
A smaller man with a booming voice, Ash isn’t hard to hear during practice. The Iowa-native brings with him an emphasis on proper technique and a do-it-right-or-get-off-the-field intensity, and he has the presence that makes it hard to forget he’s there.
“He’s an aggressive guy. He’s intense, he’s short — it’s good seeing eye to eye with a coach,” said the 5-foot-9 Valai.
“Intense” might even be an understatement. At a morning practice during training camp, Ash didn’t like what he saw from Cromartie on a play and yelled at the cornerback to get off the field. After the redshirt sophomore finished sulking to the sideline, Ash screamed at him to get back out on the field and do it the right way; Cromartie returned to the hash mark on the field and then jogged off.
“Tough is not a word, man,” Henry said. “He got on us the other day big time in the meeting room. It was something so minute, so small, most DB coaches would’ve said we had a pretty decent day, but this man doesn’t settle for less. He doesn’t settle for nothing — he wants greatness; he wants perfection. And if he don’t see that out there on the field, then he’ll let us know.”
“I’m hard on them. I’m demanding on them. I push them,” Ash said. “But they’re getting better, and they see that.”
The improvement from last year to spring ball to training camp hasn’t been day and night. But it’s been a noticeable improvement, in everything from tackling to individual coverage. A weakness for giving up the big play and shoddy tackling, it seems, are things of the past.
The biggest leaps though, might end up being in the play of the cornerbacks. Entering the 2009 season, only Brinkley had even one start under his belt, with Smith and Fenelus being thrown into the fire for the first time. Now that trio has a combined 31 starts, a fact Brinkley is quick to emphasize.
“The biggest difference is just experience all over the board,” he said of comparing last year’s unit to this one. “We had a lot of experience last year, but Antonio, Devin, it was really their first year ever starting.”
With a bevy of experience and a fiery positional coach that expects perfection, the UW defensive backs think they have what it takes to put together a big year. The secondary’s goals — conference championships aside, of course — are clear, and this group might just have the swagger and confidence to achieve them.
“We first of all deny a lot of big plays. When opportunity came for us to make the play, we made the play,” Smith said. “If not, if we didn’t make the play, we at least contested it; nothing came easy for the receivers or the offense at all.”
“Go out there and play physical football, the physical style of football that the rest of our team plays,” Valai said. “We don’t think of ourselves as DBs, we think of ourselves as bad boys — make some big hits, make some big plays and do some talking.”