Sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton may have been looking forward to the start of the Badgers’ spring football practices the most out of anyone on the 91-man roster. Spring practice, which kicked off March 5, meant winter would finally begin to remove its emphatic grip on the state of Wisconsin, much to the avail of Shelton, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native.
But spring practices, which will culminate April 12 with the Badgers’ annual Spring Game, aren’t only a sign of warmer weather for Shelton, but more importantly, a chance to improve on an impressive freshman season in which he was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media.
Shelton played a large role in the secondary for the Badgers last season as a true freshman; an often unheard of thing under the Badgers’ previous regime. But head coach Gary Andersen and the rest of the Badgers’ coaching staff knew they had something special in Shelton, who came out of Florida as a 4-star recruit and was the 26th-ranked cornerback according to ESPN.
Shelton then graduated from high school early, became one of Wisconsin’s early enrollees in January of 2013 and went through last season’s spring practices. It’s something Shelton knew would be beneficial, as it gave him more time to understand the terminology that gets significantly tougher from high school to college and to become acclimated with his new teammates.
“The terminology is way different from high school,” Shelton said. “Coming in early, that helped me out a lot. And just being able to grow with the teammates. A lot of guys took me under their wing and I think that was the best part.”
The numbers Shelton would put up in his freshman season showed just how beneficial early enrollment was. He started 11 out of 12 games at cornerback and had 30 tackles and four interceptions. Shelton’s presence was felt right off the bat in UW’s opener against UMass when he recorded four tackles and tallied his first interception in his first collegiate game.
The impressive first season from Shelton wasn’t surprising to one of the players who took Shelton under his wing, fellow cornerback, Darius Hillary.
Hillary knew from day one in spring practices last season that the Badgers had found a special player in Shelton.
“I was definitely impressed,” Hillary said. “I knew when he came in early last year that he was going to be a strong player for us. He’s definitely done a great job, and he’s a very good corner. So I’m definitely proud of him and can’t wait to see what he’s going to do this next season.”
But Shelton may be his own worst critic. He’ll be the first to tell you that despite what was regarded as a successful season by many, it was the few plays he didn’t make that stick in the back of his mind the most. Shelton doesn’t need any outside motivation to continue to improve, as he holds himself to a higher standard than what he played at last season.
“Honestly, I don’t even think last year was a great or a good year,” Shelton said. “I left a lot of plays out there. If you go back to Ohio State, Minnesota, there’s a lot of plays I feel like I could have made to make myself great and to have a good year. But from that you just have to continue to learn on. I expect better things out of myself but I have to continue to work hard and progress.”
Working hard and progressing has been Shelton’s aim in this year’s spring practices. Shelton already has the pure talent it takes to play cornerback at the top-tier of college football, but spring practice has allowed him to get a better understanding of where he needs to be, reading defensive schemes and working on the little things, according to cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland.
Strickland, a former Badger walk-on, is in his first year as a full-time assistant coach. He spent the last two seasons as a graduate assistant with the Badgers.
“I think just for [Shelton] is understanding the little things that are going to put him in better position,” Strickland said. “Formation recognition, understanding splits, where his help is or where it isn’t; just conceptually understanding the structure of the defense to be able to know what he has to defend and what he has to protect.”
Shelton, being the tough competitor that he is, is looking to improve on every facet of his game for his sophomore season. After a successful freshman season, coaches oftentimes want to see strong improvement from players in their sophomore season, and Shelton is working on accomplishing that. He’ll be anchoring a Badgers’ secondary that has had a lot of moving parts thus far in spring practices, but he’s been focusing on bettering himself in spring practices, which will translate to the success of the secondary as a whole.
“Just being hard on myself. I want to polish up everything,” Shelton said. “Continue to play good man-coverage, play good man-defense, progress my role as a better player, and see where it takes me.”
The sky’s the limit for Shelton in his second season in Cardinal and White. Strickland sees his high expectations and Shelton’s competitive nature as a reason for him to progress as a corner, and push his talents to the next level in this upcoming season.
“[Shelton] can be his own worst critic, and he needs to be,” Strickland said. “He knows that I’m going to expect a lot out of him. So, he still has a lot of maturing to do in terms of football knowledge. But he’s getting there and he’s competitive so that’s what you’re looking for.”