Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Secondary

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Secondary

Football

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Secondary

Main Story – Young Cornerbacks

The graduation of multi-year starter Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson leaving a year early for the N.F.L. draft left Wisconsin in a rare situation with its cornerback room. The 10 cornerbacks who were on the fall camp roster have no experience as a starter on the outside and all 10 are redshirt sophomores or younger.

Talk about a transition.

That youth and inexperience was one of the main reason defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard kept an open competition throughout spring and fall camp. Out of that competition emerged redshirt freshman Faion Hicks and redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams as the starters with the No.1 defense.

Hicks and Williams were Leonhard’s most consistent cornerbacks throughout fall, surprising considering the lack of experience. Williams – a 6-0 Texan – played in only two games last season and Hicks – an under-recruited prospect from Florida – redshirted last season. The Badgers like Williams’ ability to run with receivers on the perimeter and believe his length gives him the ability to recover smoothly. Hicks is two inches shorter than Williams but carries with him that same South Florida swagger that past Sunshine cornerbacks Tindal, Sojourn Shelton and others do. He finished his prep career with seven interceptions and 75 tackles.

In the season opener, the two players showed no signs of nerves. Williams was solid with a tackle and a pass breakup while Hicks notched three stops and a red-zone interception in his first collegiate game. The interception came on a reverse pass option and Hicks – like a veteran – stayed on his man.

“I think we feed off each other’s energy,” Williams said. “We trust one another, playing for the person on the left and right of us, knowing that we got it and we’re not going to let our team down.”

That combination and consistency led to one of the surprising stories that came out of fall camp with redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams, the No. 3 cornerback last season, announcing two days before the opener that he would be transferring.

Carriere-Williams played all 14 games, including five starts, last season as UW’s nickel cornerback and many thought would be a starter in 2018. However, he spent most of the fall battling consistency issues, lost his starting job midway through camp and reportedly didn’t take the demotion well.

“(His transfer) did surprise us,” Williams said. “I’m very close to Dontye and I thought he would tell me something like that. It’s his decision. His desire not to sit behind somebody, you’ve got to respect it. He wants to go somewhere where he can shine. Everybody has their own different path and this is his.”

Carriere-Williams’ departure opens the door for sophomore Madison Cone and redshirt freshman Deron Harrell, two players who contributed in the 34-3 win over Western Kentucky. Cone played nine games as a true freshman and picked off 27 passes in high school. Harrell, a 6-2, 182-pounder who switched from wide receiver this offseason, was one of the Badgers’ biggest fall camp surprises by constantly rotating in with the first-team defense. He was praised by Leonhard for being fluid in coverage, talented and continuing to grow across the board.

“They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have talent,” Leonhard told the State Journal. “We’re excited about that. It’s just been their approach. They’re smart. They realize the roles that are open and what we ask of those positions. I think there’s a lot of guys that are hungry to make that name for themselves and to become that two, three, four-year starter like some of these guys we just lost.”

Leonhard could also potentially use a couple true freshmen if the situation arises. The Badgers signed four during the last recruiting cycle with Donte Burton (early enrollee) playing in the opener on special teams and Rachad Wildgoose (did not play) the two players to keep an eye on as potential contributors.

Subplot – Scott Nelson Commanding Free Safety

The redshirt freshman won UW’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year Award last season and built a strong relationship with senior D’Cota Dixon off the field last year. Those two things gave Nelson a belief he could carry some confidence on the field this season.

Basically, Nelson took the free safety job and ran with it. Throughout fall camp, Nelson was a thorn in the side of Alex Hornibrook, racking up interceptions and defending passes over the middle. A cerebral safety with great instincts and a nose for the football, Nelson disguises his coverages very well. The rangy safety can play center field and bait quarterbacks into making mistakes. He didn’t make that big play in the opener but still finished with seven tackles, tied for the team high.

Nelson’s play and his age might have played a factor in the departure of sophomore Patrick Johnson, who is leaving the team due to “personal issues” after 17 career games. Johnson – who has battled injuries the last two seasons – had a good fall camp and appeared to be in the top group of safeties for Leonhard with Dixon and Nelson.

“I really wish Pat the best,” Leonhard said. “I liked him. I thought he had a bright future here at Wisconsin, and I really do wish him the best in whatever happens. I think it’s a little bit earlier to say what happens next for him, but I’m really rooting for him because I like the way he went about his business while he was a Badger.”

Johnson’s absence leaves sophomore Eric Burrell and true freshman Reggie Pearson as UW’s second-team safeties behind Dixon and redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. Pearson (left leg) is questionable to play Saturday against New Mexico.

“I think anytime you are young, it’s tough when you’re missing guys, but I like the way this group works,” Leonhard told reporters. “We’re going to continue to get better throughout the course of the year. They’ve seen the last couple years, the guys that have been here, that happens every single year, is guys have to step up. It goes back to that approach that I really like with the group, is they don’t really pay attention to where they’re at depth chart-wise. They just play and get better.”

Over the last three seasons, Wisconsin free safeties have recorded a combined 13 interceptions. Nelson can certainly keep the good times rolling at that position.

Stat to Know

Wisconsin returns 56.6 percent of its tackles, 53.4 percent of its tackles for loss and 50 percent of its interceptions from last season.

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