Much of the University of Wisconsin’s practice time this spring — the bulk of it, in fact — focuses on aspects of football that don’t occur within the normal flow of a game.
There are loads of drills, meticulous technique work, continuous memorization of the playbook and individual coaching to make sure no mistake goes uncorrected.
No matter what the Badgers are doing to best prepare for the 2016 season, though, the defense has kept one thing at the forefront throughout the past month.
“It’s always about the ball,” new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “So when we’re doing drills or team periods, we have an awareness of the football. Whether it’s a strip attempt or it’s when the ball’s in the air in the pass game, we’re aggressive towards it and try to make a play on it.”
That mentality has worked this spring as the Badgers have made it a common occurrence to force three, four or even more turnovers in a single practice.
UW’s defense even recorded seven interceptions on April 7, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and nearly got their hands on a few more.
“Where we were last spring to where we are now, we’re ahead,” senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “We’ve caused a lot of turnovers. I think we just want to continue to push forward in that way and see where it can get us in the fall because it’s only a matter of building off what we’re doing now and then getting ready to go into the season. It’s not even a big emphasis, to be honest with you. It’s just a mentality. That’s what we know that we can do. A lot of guys are playing with confidence. We all want to stay on that track.”
As productive as the Badgers’ defense was under former coordinator Dave Aranda the past three seasons, turnovers wasn’t one of the areas it excelled in.
UW ranked in the bottom half among FBS teams in takeaways during Aranda’s first two seasons before the unit improved to 59th nationally last year with 12 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
During Aranda’s tenure, UW forced 58 turnovers in 40 games.
Wilcox’s defenses at Southern California and Washington the past four years have all ranked higher than that, including the Huskies’ 2012 defense that finished seventh in the country with 33 takeaways in 13 games.
“(Wilcox) only heightens that awareness and that value of getting turnovers,” senior linebacker Vince Biegel said. “I think this spring, (Wilcox) has done a phenomenal job of teaching strips, teaching turnovers.
“We’ve had a phenomenal amount of turnovers this spring from the defensive backs all the way to the defensive linemen. I think those good habits we’re building in the spring will really come into fruition in the fall — those good habits of not thinking about the ball, just reacting and getting those turnovers when we’re going to need them in the fall.”
As most successes during spring practice, the flurry of turnovers could be spun into a negative for UW’s offense.
Quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook are working to become more consistent, and some of the interceptions have been a result of poor throws or decision-making by the other side of the ball.
Even so, UW’s defense, which has had its problems with dropped interceptions the past couple years, has taken advantage of its opportunities this spring, and the Badgers are hopeful they can carry that into the fall.
“Takeaways are something you always stress,” Wilcox said. “They’re the No. 1 determining factor in terms of wins and losses — protecting the ball on offense and taking it away on defense. We’re going to continue to emphasize that.
“If anybody had the secret formula on how you get them, I think everybody would be doing the same thing. But there isn’t. It’s a combination of things. It’s having an awareness. It’s always about the ball.”