Caesar Williams was surprised when the University of Wisconsin football program hired a position coach dedicated to cornerbacks.
The sixth-year senior corner had spent the first five seasons of his career being coached by Jim Leonhard, who also was coaching the safeties and leading the defense as a whole as the unit’s coordinator. Although it wasn’t something he saw coming, Williams’ experience with UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat has been fruitful.
“I didn’t expect it,” Williams said Monday, “but, I mean, unexpected things can turn out great.”
Poteat, a 10-year NFL veteran, came to UW from Toledo where he was the corners coach for four seasons. He began his Division I coaching career under Badgers coach Paul Chryst as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh, and he has a wealth of knowledge to bring the group.
Leonhard is still coaching the safety position, but he said having someone dedicated to the cornerbacks allows them to avoid times on the field or in meetings where coaching points about play disguises and pressures don’t apply to them.
“I think in every way it’s going to help this DB group with the structure that we have and so far it’s been great,” Leonhard said when spring practices began. “Coach Poteat has been able to kind of come in and really just hammer the technique. I’ll own the scheme and the installs and different things like that, and as it progresses we can split that group more and figure out what’s best for them. But I love the addition that we’ve made and I think he’s a great coach and he’s really connecting with these players.”
It’s hard to say Leonhard wasn’t handling the responsibilities of defensive coordinator and secondary coach well.
In his five seasons on staff, including the past four handling both roles, the Badgers have the third-best scoring defense in the FBS (17 points per game allowed), second-best total defense (294.5 yards per game allowed), second-best passing efficiency defense (109.7) and the second-best third-down defense (30% conversion rate allowed).
But UW’s corners haven’t had the success that other positions on the defense have had in Leonhard’s tenure. The Badgers have had one cornerback drafted in that time, with Nick Nelson going to the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. Nelson (2017) and Sojourn Shelton (2016) are the only UW corners to earn first-team All-Big Ten Conference honors since 2016.
Poteat has made his goals clear with his group.
“He told us that he wanted corners that played with a dog mentality,” junior Alexander Smith said. “He just want dogs out there on the island. I think that’s the biggest thing he’s been preaching and has brought to our room.”
Being a dog at cornerback, according to Poteat, is being physical at the line of scrimmage and challenging receivers to earn each yard they gain. UW’s physicality on the outside led to pass interference flags last year, including four that hurt in a loss at Northwestern.
Poteat said he doesn’t want his players to back down, and the flags will cut down if they get their heads turned to find the ball.
“It’s difficult, but that’s not going to change the mindset,” Poteat said. “Everywhere I’ve been that was one of the things that helped us play at a high level, that mindset, competing.
“It’s all a progression, the fundamentals, understanding where am I in relation to the receiver? Am I in phase, am I out of phase, can I turn around and locate that ball? Those are all the steps that we have to do to make sure that we’re in good position to be able to play physical and attack the ball in the air.”
This style of cornerback play relies on sound technique at the line of scrimmage, and Poteat has said he’s “started from scratch” in changing the press coverage tactics. The individualized attention Poteat’s been able to give the cornerback group has produced immediate strides in spring practices.
“Coach Poteat has really taken time (to) break down every guy and see where we can improve our technique,” sophomore Dean Engram said. “Where I’ve seen more detail is just going through each and every guy and seeing how we can add onto our game from other guys in the room or from what we’ve done previously.”
Poteat’s addition has aided a group that needs two or three new faces to elevate their play and be able to handle and expanded role. That’s an outcome Williams can see happening by the fall because of how Poteat is leading the cornerbacks.
“Having coach Po in our room, he balances everything out,” Williams said. “He teaches press, he teaches off-man, he teaches us zone, he teaches us run fits. It’s not always too much emphasis on one area of play, it’s a balance. You’ve got to be versatile to play in this game and that’s what he brings to the room is versatility.”
Breaking down the Wisconsin Badgers 2021 recruiting class by position
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Deacon Hill (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Quick analysis: Hill has a strong arm and shown enough in camps to rise to a four-star recruit on Rivals. Competition level is a question mark at the high school level, but he’s got the tools to be a good college quarterback.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Hill: Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr “identified him really early. We thought he had great arm strength when you compared him to the best players in the country who were out there. We thought he was right there from the jump. … We really liked him, we felt personality-wise the people that surrounded him and supported him, how he worked, all those things were a great fit for us.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jackson Acker (Madison), Loyal Crawford (Eau Claire), Antwan Roberts (Nashville, Tenn.)
Quick analysis: There’s been talk about Acker switching positions at the college level, but UW listed him as a running back Wednesday. Acker didn’t play in the fall due to COVID-19, but he has shown a good mix of speed and power as a ball carrier. … Crawford has a James White-level ceiling as a third-down back and the most shiftiness of the bunch. … Roberts has explosion and proven ability to run through tackles.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re all kind of unique. Jackson’s a guy that obviously would have position flexibility, but he kind of is explosive. … Then you see Loyal, and Loyal’s got great speed, great change of direction, a chance for a home run hitter. I think he’s got great quicks in and out and, again, I think all these guys, we’ll find out exactly where they’re at when they come in, but I think guys that are just really good football players as well. … Antwan, what he does to this point, complete back and had a great senior year.”
Number of players: 2
Who are they: Skyler Bell (Bronx, N.Y.), Markus Allen (Clayton, Ohio)
Quick analysis: The Badgers landed two players who possess good speed and agility at arguably the biggest position of need in the class. … Bell has a suddenness to his cuts that makes him dangerous as a receiver and returner. … Allen shows good ball skills when making contested catches and great body control.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Bell, who wasn’t able to visit campus before committing: “I just think you take the time to reach out. Whether it was Zoom meetings with him and his family, or whether it was phone calls, you took the time to be able to answer questions that pop up in their minds. I think those things are always huge.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Jack Pugh (Columbus, Ohio)
Quick analysis: He has long strides that help him cover a lot of ground and he’s shown an array of route-running skills from both an on-line and split-out positions.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Pugh: “Jack played his first year of football last year. This was his second year. Really a guy that was a hoop player that jumped into it. Watching his film, I thought he was really physical for a guy that hadn’t played football. He was physical at D-end as well as tight end. I think he’s got the ability to separate. I think he’s got really a lot of speed and explosiveness.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: JP Benzschawel (Grafton), Riley Mahlman (Lakeville, Minn.), Nolan Rucci (Lititz, Pa.)
Quick analysis: The Badgers are set up to continue churning out great O-lines for years to come after an impressive haul of linemen in 2019. … Benzschawel is the third of his brothers to come to UW, and he’s shown great power and strength as a blocker. … Mahlman might be the most athletic of the bunch, having played tight end for a time in high school and as a basketball standout. … Rucci, the lone five-star recruit in the class, has all the tools to become an All-American tackle.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re big, athletic guys that you have to have as defenses are pretty darn athletic and being able to keep up with them. … I think those guys match in their work ethic and their mind-set, I think they’ll make a major impact here.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Mike Jarvis (Medford, N.J.)
Quick analysis: Jarvis was recruited as both an offensive and defensive lineman, but UW will look to make him a defensive end. He has good quickness but will need to add weight and strength at the college level.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Jarvis: “He fits what we do, the right mentality. He can get after people. Very physically impressive at the high school level. We’re looking forward to developing his skills as we continue to push what we can ask our defensive line to do. You turn on a tape and you go, ‘Dang, everything we ask our guys to do, he’s putting on tape for you.’”
Number of players: 4
Who are they: Braelon Allen, (Fond du Lac), Jake Chaney (Cape Coral, Fla.), Jake Ratzlaff (Rosemount, Minn.), Bryan Sanborn (Lake Zurich, Ill.)
Quick analysis: UW may need these players as soon as next year depending on what junior Jack Sanborn and senior Mike Maskalunas decide to do this offseason. … Allen is a physical freak, showing off-the-charts strength and love for making big hits. After playing safety in high school, moving to linebacker could allow him to be around the ball often. … Chaney posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons as a junior and senior and has a nose for attacking the ball and creating fumbles. … Ratzlaff is another wild card. He has the speed and athleticism to play at any linebacker spot and turned down a hockey scholarship to Minnesota to play football. … Bryan Sanborn has good closing speed and often was used as a blitzer in high school.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Ratzlaff: “We’re excited for him because as talented as he is, he really has not focused solely on football. So we still feel like there’s a ton of growth in his game and coming from a very, very high, high level of play already.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Ayo Adebogun (Mequon), TJ Bollers (Tiffin, Iowa), Darryl Peterson (Akron, Ohio)
Quick analysis: This group rivals the O-line as the deepest, most talented chunk of the class, but don’t be surprised if one or more of these players ends up being listed at another position in the future. … Adebogun, a lineman in high school, has a tremendous first step. … Bollers has the size to potentially play on the line, but the quickness and block-shedding of an outside backer. … Peterson was a prolific pass rusher in high school and could help UW soon.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Bollers: “We love his versatility. (We) see him as an outside linebacker, kind of plus. We think he can do a little bit more than that position and provide some flexibility for us. Great physicality with what he shown in high school. As he grows into his body, it’s going to be a lot of fun to put him in different positions.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Al Ashford III (Denver, Colo.), Ricardo Hallman (Miami, Fla.), Hunter Wohler (Muskego)
Quick analysis: Ashford already plays with the aggressive style that Leonhard loves and he’s borderline obsessive about learning and refining technique. … Hallman is a true ball hawk and uses his athleticism to close on balls in the air faster than opposing receivers. … Wohler, Wisconsin’s two-time AP state player of the year, is a special blend of ball skills and physicality as a safety.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Wohler: “Probably as highly recruited of a skill player in the state in a long time. Extremely talented. What he does at the safety position in impacting games at that level was a lot of fun to watch.”
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