The University of Wisconsin’s secondary made the unlikeliest of turnarounds from one week to the next when the Badgers traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday.
After allowing more than 400 yards passing to a winless Nebraska team, UW held the Wolverines to just 124 yards on 21 pass attempts. Even more surprising, all four players who began the year as starters — safeties D’Cota Dixon and Scott Nelson and cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams — missed either all or most of the game.
That left true freshman cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, true freshman safety Reggie Pearson and sophomore safety Eric Burrell to make the first starts of their careers. Even in a 38-13 loss, it’s hard to imagine the trio playing much better than it did Saturday.
“Everyone keeps saying Wisconsin DBs aren’t that good,” Wildgoose said. "I was definitely trying to prove something (against Michigan). ... People gonna think we’re average for the rest of the season, so we’ve got to keep working."
Wildgoose and many of the other standouts from last week may get another chance prove themselves against Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Dixon, Nelson, Hicks and Pearson are all questionable to play, which could leave UW shorthanded once again.
Defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said after Wednesday’s practice that Dixon and Nelson haven’t participated at all this week. Hicks and Pearson also didn’t practice Wednesday.
“You don’t really know who’s going to be back,” Leonhard said. "The biggest thing is you’ve got to prepare a game plan that guys can execute, from experienced players all the way down to inexperienced players because we’re not 100 percent sure who’s going to be on the field.
"You just have to approach it a little bit different right now. Our guys are doing everything they can, and they practice, they work, they meet, they do extra. It’s a fun group, but you’re scrambling a little bit."
Leonhard likes to mix and match defensive back pairings in the offseason for just this reason. He doesn’t want anyone to rely on a veteran like Dixon to help get them lined up properly on every rep.
Seven defensive backs — Wildgoose, Pearson, Burrell, Hicks, Williams, Nelson and cornerback Deron Harrell — have made their first-ever starts this season.
The three who made their initial start at Michigan all enjoyed their share of impressive moments in the game. In the first action of his career, Pearson showed off his hard-hitting style and forced a fumble on third-and-1 early in the third quarter. Wildgoose broke up a pass in the end zone on third down, forcing the Wolverines into a field-goal attempt. Burrell led UW with 11 tackles.
“They did some things early to keep us in the game and made some plays,” Leonhard said. "I love what Rachad’s doing on the outside right now. He’s playing really well and has kind of figured out who he is. Eric has experience, but he’s looking left and right and leading a very young, inexperienced group. Reggie’s a dynamic player. It’s the first opportunity he’s had to play. Really, for a number of reasons, that was supposed to be way too big for him, and it wasn’t. So it was exciting to see that."
Williams, who according to Pro Football Focus played 19 snaps in his first game back from a left leg injury, said he now feels 100 percent and could see a larger role this week. If Dixon, Nelson and Pearson can’t play against Illinois, however, UW could send yet another new starter — likely either sophomore Seth Currens or senior Evan Bondoc — on the field for the first series.
It didn’t ultimately matter who was out there against Michigan. The group wants to back that performance up with another solid outing this week and prove they’ve turned a corner after struggling against Nebraska and Iowa to begin Big Ten play.
“I think collectively, our whole DB corps went out there, showcased what we really have (against Michigan), and I think everybody sees that,” Burrell said. “We’ve got to play the game regardless, so whoever’s out there, just give it the best you’ve got and just compete. That’s it."