Wisconsin Secondary Looking To Propel Into 2019

Wisconsin Secondary Looking To Propel Into 2019

Football

Wisconsin Secondary Looking To Propel Into 2019

If University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard let his hair grow out, a hint of grey would likely dot his complexion. That is, as long as he hadn’t pulled it out by now.

A year after running a defense that was full of seniors and veterans who could be counted on to take all the snaps, Leonhard has had to cobble together an 11-man unit whose main theme has been youth, inexperience or both.

It’s no doubt been stressful, but it’s been a challenge worth undertaking.

“These are college kids that are young, impressionable, they read the paper, they see the articles, they have school, they have a lot of things outside football,” Leonhard said. “They are young men trying to figure out how to grow up and make good decisions. I think that’s one of the things that makes college football special is that there is a lot of unpredictability.

“You try to get it out of your team. You try to get your team to be the constant. We’ve done a pretty good job as a program in not having the highs and lows, but I think that sometimes comes with youth is they’re trying to figure that out.”

Wisconsin’s secondary has been a prime example of on-the-job training. Leonhard has used 10 different starters in the secondary over the last seven games, including six players who made the first starts of their careers: cornerbacks Donte Burton, Madison Cone and Rachad Wildgoose and safeties Evan Bondoc, Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson. Of that list, three players – Burton, Pearson and Wildgoose – are true freshmen, the latter two starting together at Michigan.

That helps explain why UW has had decent performances (167 passing yards by Northwestern, 160 passing yards at Penn State) followed up by clunkers (261 yards to Rutgers, 386 yards and four touchdowns at Purdue).

“You’re definitely excited at times,” Leonhard said about his group, which ranks 38th in the country in pass defense (200.8 ypg). “There’s also the frustration with some of the lows that you feel like shouldn’t be as low at this point. You like to see a little bit more consistency. You understand it. You know they’re going to be there. Sometimes as a coach, you get frustrated when (the inconsistencies) come at the wrong time, maybe not being able to snap back out of something within a game. That’s part of the process when you’re dealing with a young group.”

Entering last year’s Orange Bowl, Wisconsin’s pass defense gave up only 160.6 yards per game, fourth-best in the nation. In the 34-24 win over Miami in the Hurricanes home stadium, the Badgers held Malik Rosier to 203 passing yards. Of Rosier’s 26 attempts, only 11 were completed, one went for a touchdown and three were intercepted.

That was part of the benefit of Leonhard having two seniors (free safety Natrell Jamerson and cornerback Derrick Tindal) and two juniors (strong safety D’Cota Dixon and cornerback Nick Nelson).

When Wisconsin (7-5) takes on Miami (7-5) again in the postseason, this time in this afternoon’s Pinstripe Bowl in New York City, only Dixon remains, and he’s spent a good portion of the season playing less than 100 percent.

“You can deal with some of the inconsistencies just because of the youth, but you coach them as hard as you can to try and accelerate the process for a lot of guys,” Leonhard said. “There were a lot of firsts in that room this year. First starts, first interception, first this, first that. When you really sit back and think about that, they’ve done a good job and now the next step is a big one for a lot of guys.”

That next step, as Leonhard referenced, is 2019. While the Badgers lose three starting linebackers, the program regains some depth along the defensive front and only Dixon graduates from the secondary.

Of the seven players listed in Wisconsin’s Pinstripe Bowl two-deep depth chart, three are freshmen starters (free safety Scott Nelson, cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Wildgoose), two are freshmen reserves and two are sophomores.

That fact alone makes this year’s stress worth it to Leonhard, as long as the group builds off of it.

“It’s a group that has to take a big step forward,” Leonhard said. “I feel like they will. Experience will help that, and I think just being thrown into the fire a little bit, some good, some bad, a lot of learning experiences, that should help them with that. They have got to have the right approach.

“There needs to be a lot of growth through next year all the way to the end fall camp. Now they can put that experience.”

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