For the first time in his long-standing status as a starter for the University of Wisconsin football team, Sojourn Shelton will be viewed as the veteran of the secondary.
Shelton has experienced just about all he could during 37 career starts, from his struggles against Arizona State as a true freshman to the most recent high point of grabbing a late interception against Southern California to help win last year’s Holiday Bowl.
Despite watching other secondary starters vanish following that victory, though, Shelton doesn’t exactly view himself as the all-knowing, four-year starter expected to keep the back end of the defense from falling apart in 2016.
“I think experience doesn’t really matter, to be honest with you,” Shelton said. “I’m just trying to lead by example and show those guys that there’s really no difference between all of us. There’s really no difference between me and them. ‘What I do, you guys do the same way.’ ”
While cornerbacks Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson weren’t starters last season, Shelton notes they enter next season having played in a number of huge games.
At safety, the same could be said for D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso, among others.
Shelton’s aim heading into his final year at UW is to lead his position group by example — on the field and in meeting rooms — and to peel back his label as a four-year starter to show his peers they can make the same impact regardless of where they’ve previously stood on the depth chart.
“I’m so fortunate to have him as a DB captain,” redshirt freshman Titus Booker said. “He started early (in his career), and he just lets us all know that we’re all capable of doing what he’s done.
“He gives us that confidence. He has all that experience under his belt, so when someone like him talks, you definitely, definitely listen.”
First-year defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard called Shelton “tremendously valuable” to the other defensive backs. Shelton’s acting as another coach on the field, and it’s easy for others at the position to heed the voice of one of their own.
Shelton also made an early impression on first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who noted the senior has approached his own game with the same urgency as his younger teammates.
“He’s gotten better and better, too,” Wilcox said. “It’s not like he’s just sitting there resting on his laurels. Sojourn’s done a good job this spring of trying to take the next step in his game.
“I think (he) gives (the defensive backs) a little bit of a calming effect. He’s been in the fire and seen a lot of different plays. He’s been there.”
The defensive backs have mostly performed well throughout spring practices. The group has tried to limit big plays from the offense and has accumulated a high number of interceptions off passes from quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook.
“We’ve been catching those things like a cold sore,” Shelton said.
But the defensive backs still have plenty of room for improvement before they’re ready to face early tests against LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Mistakes will be made before those games and after them, and Shelton hopes he can help the others instill a bounce-back mentality to make sure one play doesn’t affect the next.
Shelton, as much as anyone else, has learned the importance of that trait over the past three years.
“You can learn a lot from the good days, but I think you learn the most from the bad days,” Shelton said. “My thing is just to teach those guys, at the position we play, there’s going to be times where everything is not going your way. Just keep fighting and keep pushing. It’s just little things like that that I’m trying to show them that really matter.
“Everybody can have fun and play the position when everything’s going good, but I feel my leadership role is more of, when things are not going your way, you’ve got to respond in a positive way and understand that there will be better days ahead.”