With Wisconsin losing three starters from last year’s secondary, the unit probably entered the season with the most unknowns surrounding it. It didn’t help matters when two players who appeared on Wisconsin’s two-deep depth chart at the beginning of the season – cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams and safety Patrick Johnson – decided to leave the program.
Despite the early growing pains, the secondary has been responsible for three of the team’s four interceptions and 10 of the 14 team breakups. The group has also limited teams to 172.75 yards per game and held teams to a 58 percent completion percentage on a total of 100 attempts.
Although Wisconsin’s leading tackler has been a linebacker the last three years, senior strong safety D’Cota Dixon leads the defense in total tackles (24) and solo stops (15). Like Dixon, redshirt freshman Scott Nelson has been steady in his play and is third on the team in tackles (20, nine solo) and tackles for loss (2.5) and leads the team with four pass breakups. In fact, three of Wisconsin’s four starters have been able to register at least one tackle for loss.
The departure of Carriere-Williams has allowed sophomore Madison Cone to get more reps as the nickel cornerback. He’s responded with an interception and a pass breakup, giving the defense a nice lift at that spot.
With the exception of Dixon, these first four games are the first meaningful playing time for all the secondary’s contributors. With the inexperience comes the expectation that at times the secondary will give up big pass plays. Other than the win over New Mexico, the Badgers have given up at least one pass play of 31 yards. Against Iowa, UW gave up 256 passing yards and struggled to cover the Hawkeyes’ bigger tight ends.
The young secondary has also been flagged five times for defensive pass interference, four of which were accepted. In the win over the Hawkeyes, the Badgers were flagged three times (two accepted) for pass interference. Redshirt freshman Faion Hicks had two on one drive alone, struggling to slow more experienced players. Wisconsin will have to find a way to limit the penalties as they can be killers for the defense.
Not surprisingly, Wisconsin’s secondary has been up and down, doing some things really well and coming up with timely turnovers and stops. Other times the group really shows their youth and inexperience. That inconsistency will likely be the case through the remainder of the season. During Wisconsin’s three nonconference games, the starters at cornerback were Hicks and Caesar Williams. For the Big Ten opener, redshirt freshman Deron Harrell received the start over Williams.
Wisconsin’s starting corners still may not be settled but Harrell is one of Wisconsin’s more talented athletes. Harrell’s length and athleticism could prove to be an asset as he continues to gain experience, in particular against the better passing teams. In the weeks to come, Wisconsin’s secondary will face three of the top five current passing teams in the Big Ten, making it important that defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard can shore up some of the secondary’s inconsistencies.
Nelson has given up some big chunk plays but is showing the raw characteristics that validate why he was so coveted my Big Ten schools in the recruiting process. His on-field awareness and play-making ability signal that he’ll be a good one for UW in the years to come.