As the University of Wisconsin football team prepares to kick off the 2021 season, the Wisconsin State Journal is offering an unprecedented inside look at this year's roster.
From players breaking down their teammates' performances in camp and what to expect this season, to beat reporter Colten Bartholomew sharing his expertise on key position battles and players to watch, we've got Badgers fans covered.
In the ninth part of our position-by-position breakdown series, UW wide receiver Kendric Pryor breaks down the Badgers cornerbacks as we take an in-depth look at the group:
Projected starters — Ht.; Wt.; Yr.; Hometown
Faion Hicks — 5-10; 192; Sr.; Miami
Caesar Williams — 6-0; 188; Sr.; Grand Prairie, Texas
Dean Engram — 5-9; 168; So.; Columbia, Md.
Alexander Smith — 5-11; 176; Jr.; Culver City, Calif.
Donte Burton — 5-10; 183; Jr.; Loganville, Ga.
Semar Melvin — 5-11; 170; So.; Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Deron Harrell — 6-2; 180; Sr.; Denver
Amaun Williams — 5-10; 182; Redshirt Fr.; Milwaukee
Max Lofy — 5-10; 181; Redshirt Fr.; Colorado Springs, Colo.
Al Ashford III — 6-0; 175; Fr.; Denver
Ricardo Hallman — 5-10; 173; Fr.; Miami
The secondary is going to get challenged often with the way the Badgers’ front seven stops the run — fifth in the country at 96.1 yards per game last season. The cornerbacks held up well for the most part, allowing just more than 200 yards per game, which ranked 31st in the FBS. The group as a whole was up and down last season, playing well enough to win against top-notch receivers like the ones Indiana featured a year ago, but losing others like Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette for multiple big plays. The cornerbacks lost multiple one-on-one battles during the Duke’s Mayo Bowl before the linebackers and safeties jumped four passes for interceptions in the second half.
Having veterans like Faion Hicks (above) and Caesar Williams return this season provides stability at the top of the rotation. Hicks added to his portfolio by adding nickel corner duties to his plate last season, a role that will continue in 2021.
“Me getting that inside experience last year, I feel confident following a guy if he moves inside, I can go inside and play that, too,” Hicks said.
Williams proved often that he could be a tough, physical corner, even if the physicality drew flags a little too often for his liking. Both players have said they’ve learned how to fine-tune their technique under new position coach Hank Poteat and they’re looking to turn tight coverage into interceptions. No UW cornerback had an interception last season.
The springtime battle for the third cornerback spot between Dean Engram (above) and Alexander Smith continued into fall camp, with both having good days. The Badgers were in nickel packages, meaning a third cornerback on the field, for 70% of their snaps last season, so third corner is basically a starting position at this point. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said neither player has pulled ahead in the competition, so the player in that spot might be determined on a weekly basis depending on practice performance.
Semar Melvin was limited to three games last season, but he came on strong toward the end of the 2019 season and will be in the rotation. Leonhard has shown as a coordinator that he’ll rotate players to keep them at full speed throughout a game, and this corner group should have enough players ready to allow that to happen.
One charge Poteat had when joining the UW staff was helping his group better balance the physicality with which they play and giving enough space to not draw penalties. The corners say Poteat has taught them more about footwork at the line of scrimmage and how to engage a receiver in press coverage without fouling.
Ready to make a leap
Smith has been a strong special teams player for UW the past two seasons, with a memorable blocked punt against Ohio State in 2019. He looks smooth in and out of breaks in coverage and at 5-foot-11, he can cover a range of receivers without giving up much in the way of size.
Poteat has seen encouraging things from the young cornerbacks, in particular freshmen Al Ashford III and Ricardo Hallman, during the summer and fall camps. Reps will be hard to come by for them this season, barring injury, but things are set up well for them to get their chance next year. UW already has secured verbal commitments from two corners in the 2022 class.
5.13 | Yards Faion Hicks allowed per target last season, per Pro Football Focus. That was the lowest among UW corners targeted at least 10 times in 2020.
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.
In this Series
Badgers roster breakdown: Everything you need to know about every position on Wisconsin's football team
- 11 updates