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What we know about the battle for the Badgers' last remaining defensive starting spot
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What we know about the battle for the Badgers' last remaining defensive starting spot

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Jim Leonhard could’ve been playing his cards close to the vest when he told reporters Aug. 14 that he wasn’t sure about the Badgers’ third cornerback spot.

Or, as the practice snaps reporters saw last week showed, the No. 12 University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator’s issue is having multiple options with different skill sets for the role as opposed to a clear choice.

State Journal beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin get together over Zoom to discuss training camp’s ups and downs for the Badgers’ offense, some trends we’ve noticed and then break down the inside and outside linebackers.  

The Badgers wrap up training camp Tuesday before getting into game-preparation mode in advance of their season opener against Penn State at 11 a.m. Sept. 4 at Camp Randall Stadium. That gives Leonhard and cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat about a week and a half to determine who will start in that spot. UW played in nickel packages, meaning a third cornerback was on the field, on 70% of its plays last season.

With senior Faion Hicks set to resume the slot cornerback duty he took over last fall after Rachad Wildgoose’s season ended due to a shoulder injury, the third cornerback spot is the only starting role the Badgers don’t seem to have locked down. Junior Alexander Smith and sophomore Dean Engram have gone back and forth getting the most reps at No. 3 cornerback, with each bringing a different style to the position.

“It’s fun — probably one of the most competitive battles I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Hicks said Monday. “I can’t wait to see how everything turns out come the first game. … Everybody stepped up and it’s to the point where we can’t go wrong with anyone.”

Both Engram and Smith will travel and play this season. They’re both valued special teams contributors, with Engram working as both a kick and punt returner and Smith a coverage-unit player. Both will contribute defensively regardless of who starts as the third corner, with Leonhard’s hot-hand philosophy governing the snaps in the secondary.

Smith, who played in six games last season after 14 appearances in 2019, might give the Badgers the most versatility in the role with his ability to play outside and in the slot. If there’s a particular receiver Leonhard wants to keep Hicks or senior Caesar Williams attached to, Smith can fill the gap wherever it lands.

Smith, at 5-foot-11 with long arms, has the ability to cover a range of receivers. He doesn’t give up much height against some of the Big Ten Conference’s top outside receivers and has the quickness to stay with smaller players in the slot. His arms allow him to still contest passes if a receiver gets a bit of separation.

“It allows me to be physical at the line and to get my hands on (receivers) in certain situations to try to recover and just make up, use my attributes to help me,” Smith said about his size.

Engram brings quickness and tenacity to the position. Hicks said the corners call Engram “Lil’ Scrap” for how feisty he gets with receivers he’s covering. He’s played in the slot before as well, but Smith has gotten more reps there during camp practices open to reporters.

Engram, who is in his third year in the program, said his understanding of the position and the defense as a whole is better than ever.

“Learning the whole defensive scheme and what plays off of each other has been a really huge, big mental growth year,” Engram said. “It’s made my playmaking go up, being able to know where the guys are and my responsibility within the defense.”

Smith and Engram heaped praise on the other during interviews over the past two weeks, with both saying they’ve enjoyed the competition and how it forced them to be prepared every day.

The winner of the competition likely won’t be known until the Badgers get into a nickel package against the Nittany Lions — the Badgers typically release a depth chart on Monday of game week and in the past it has listed the starters in the team’s base 3-4 defense.

“I’m really just looking for as much depth as possible,” Leonhard said. “I’ve always rotated a lot of guys in camp. That’s a position that you need as many guys as possible going through camp, going through a season.”


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