University of Wisconsin football fans weren’t there to see it, but members of the secondary are in agreement — the group took a major step forward from the end of last season through spring practice.
Those who played significant snaps took the time to focus on their technique and any recurring mistakes made throughout the year. Those on the fringes could finally break down their own tape, rather than film of somebody else higher up the depth chart.
That progress was necessary. Last season’s defensive backs didn’t remotely resemble secondaries in recent years. Gone were veterans such as Derrick Tindal or Natrell Jamerson. The roster didn’t have any potential All-Americans comparable to Nick Nelson, or even the steadiness of a four-year starter like Sojourn Shelton.
These were primarily freshmen and sophomores, most of whom hadn’t played a down of football at the college level.
“When you have experience, a lot of times the process to get from Point A to Point B is a much straighter line,” UW defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said. “With young guys, sometimes it takes a little bit longer because you have to teach every aspect of it.
“You can never assume guys know something when they’re young. You always have to kind of go back and restart and go back to the basics. That’s what takes a little bit longer. You sometimes have to be a little more simple so they can play faster and more confidently. We had to do that at times. That’s what it is. There’s no way around it. If you’re doing it right, you have to adjust to your talent and your personnel, and I felt like we did that last year.”
With another offseason behind them, the talent-rich prospects in the back end of the defense could be in for a much smoother ride in 2019.
For a group that endured a seemingly up-and-down season at times, though, many of the raw numbers from 2018 didn’t indicate as much.
UW ranked 22nd nationally in passing defense, allowing just 189.1 passing yards per game despite surrendering 793 yards combined to Nebraska and Purdue. Opponents were held under 200 yards on nine occasions.
Some of the promising defensive backs don’t believe they’re far off from what the likes of Nelson, Tindal, Jamerson, Shelton and others provided in years past.
“Those guys had a lot of time under their belt, and it showed,” junior cornerback Caesar Williams said. “I think as our first year playing, we looked just as good. We’ll get to that level, if not better.
“I think a lot of people underestimated us. I don’t think we got a lot of the credit that we deserved.”
UW coach Paul Chryst even compared cornerback Faion Hicks to Shelton before fall camp began. He praised the sophomore for trusting himself more this offseason, leading to fewer highs and lows.
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Chryst and Leonhard have both hammered home the importance of that kind of consistency, potentially the last step for many of the younger defensive backs to raise their game this season.
“Now it’s, who can take another step?” Leonhard said. “I think there’s a number of guys who are really close to gaining an expanded role and really playing a lot of snaps. There’s a number of guys who can do that. It’s who had the most improvement and who’s going to go out there and compete. I love that group.”
Even without more young talents emerging, the secondary already looks quite deep.
Every cornerback returned this season — a position that saw six players start at least one game. At least four of those — Williams, Hicks and sophomores Rachad Wildgoose and Deron Harrell — could make a solid case to be a regular starter this season.
Three-year starting safety D’Cota Dixon departed, but there may be five capable players at that spot with Collin Wilder now eligible and Madison Cone switching from cornerback.
Injuries to Dixon and others at safety last year allowed snaps to spread out at that position as well, which may have proved valuable for some. Take Reggie Pearson, for example, who started at Michigan last season as a true freshman and appears likely to be a first-team player this year.
With that type of initial experience behind them, the defensive backs could start playing faster when this season kicks off Friday night at South Florida.
“(Last season was) maybe a little transition year, but I think it was more guys weren’t playing as fast as they could,” sophomore safety Scott Nelson said. “You’re out there, it’s your first time. You may not be as confident in your job and what you’re supposed to be doing as you should be, or as you will be with experience. So I think a lot of that will be able to be solved this year.”
UW’s defense took a giant step back last season, for a number of reasons. There’s plenty of opportunity for a bounce-back, however, and the secondary stands out as a primary justification for that possibility.
The Badgers are without a single senior defensive back on the roster this season, yet their cornerbacks and safeties are both flush with talent and now own enough experience to compete without much, if any, second guessing.
A big leap could materialize in the coming months.
“I think we should,” Nelson said. “I think it’s kind of an expectation that we have within the group.
“We all got a lot of experience last year, but we’ve got to turn that into confidence and really be able to make plays this year on a consistent basis — really be an area of the defense and the team where everybody can rely on us and we can make the most out of every opportunity that we have.”
This is Part Five of the State Journal's 2019 Badgers football preview. Check back at Madison.com throughout the week as we count down to UW's season opener Friday at South Florida.