A one-off text in a group message has become an identity for the University of Wisconsin football team’s secondary.
The group was looking for a nickname for itself, something that embodied who they were and what they want to do on the field this season. After a few not-for-public-consumption suggestions were offered, junior cornerback Alex Smith suggested “The Takers” — as in taking away the ball and taking the momentum in the game.
Met with approval, that attitude of taking the ball has been on display this week during the No. 12 Badgers’ training camp practices, including Saturday’s work in front of about 600 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
“We’re just trying to make plays,” Smith said.
Smith and safeties Scott Nelson, John Torchio and Preston Zachman all had pass break-ups during practice Saturday to go with five pass break-ups scattered among defensive backs during Friday’s practice.
As camp has progressed, the secondary has improved in its ability to challenge receivers at the point of the catch without being too physical and drawing a penalty, which was an issue last season.
The starting roles in the secondary appear set, with seniors Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams manning the corner spots and Nelson and senior Collin Wilder filling the safety positions. But defensive coordinator and safeties coach Jim Leonhard has made it clear throughout his tenure he’ll play the hot hand if a defensive back is performing well in practice.
Hank Poteat, who’s in his first season working with the team’s cornerbacks, has put an emphasis on his players attacking the ball through the catch, not giving up on the play after a receiver gets his hands on the ball. All but Torchio’s play Saturday — a tip to himself to intercept a pass from Danny Vanden Boom — were examples of the corners taking that teaching onto the field, knocking the ball out of receivers’ hands.
“Our big point of emphasis is finish,” sophomore cornerback Dean Engram said. “Finish on the football, regardless of the position that you’re in, finish on the ball.”
Long running plays
The offensive line has gotten a bit healthier late this week with the return of senior right tackle Logan Bruss. His play and the cohesion building between the three interior linemen — Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann and Jack Nelson, from left to right — helped pop some long runs Saturday.
The line paved the way for big runs from junior Chez Mellusi and redshirt freshman Jalen Berger on back-to-back plays during an 11-on-11 session midway through practice. The defense had its second line in at the time, but most of the starting linebacker corps was on the field.
Berger, who returned to practice in full after missing some time this week, and Mellusi will be getting the lion’s share of the tailback snaps when the team opens the season Sept. 4 against Penn State. But junior Isaac Guerendo has stayed healthy throughout camp — a challenge for him during his career — and has shown good power between the tackles and a willingness to deliver a blow on a would-be tackler when he gets a handoff.
Bryson Williams showing range
Much has been made this offseason regarding junior defensive tackle Keeanu Benton’s ability to play in the nickel defense, moving from his typical spot over the center to an end’s role across from a guard. Benton has shown he can do that and has been in the first nickel defense during camp.
But Bryson Williams, a senior whose injury troubles opened the door for Benton to become a starter in 2019, also has been taking snaps at end in nickel packages. Williams looks to be in the second unit in both base and nickel defenses, adding a versatility to his game that could help him see the field more often.
When asked about Williams’ health and reaction to the toll of training camp, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej said Williams has had no limitation and looked as quick as he ever has in a Badgers uniform.
“I think he’s doing some good things up front,” Kolodziej said about Williams. “It’s exciting. We’ve got a really deep group right now that’s all healthy.”
From the infirmary
Here’s a look at who didn’t practice for the Badgers:
- CB Al Ashford (left arm)
- OL Tyler Beach (left leg)
- RB Jalen Berger (right leg)
- OL Tanor Bortolini (right leg)
- WR Stephan Bracey (right leg)
- OL Logan Brown (head)
- CB Dante Burton (right leg)
- WR Danny Davis (head)
- OLB Aaron Witt (right leg)
- TE Clay Cundiff (left arm)
- OLB Nick Herbig (hydration)
Out for season
CB Al Ashford (left arm)
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.