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.
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.”
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 the 2020 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 receiver 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 safety 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.
After much discussion and thought, Tristan has changed his commitment and will be accepting a football scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin. He has the utmost respect and admiration for the University of Arizona but this is an opportunity he cannot ignore. pic.twitter.com/hqf8GGqZwp— Tim Monday (@pappamonday) November 16, 2021
UW added an athletic defensive line prospect in mid-November when Tristan Monday flipped his commitment from Arizona to the Badgers.
UW was interested in Monday since he arrived in high school, but his size then didn't lend itself to a natural position fit in the Badgers' defense. Now standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 240 pounds, he'll start his career as a defensive end. UW offered him a scholarship in early November and he accepted it after visiting campus Nov. 12-14.
Monday is a consensus three-star recruit from Scottsdale, Arizona, who had offers from Arizona, Baylor, Colorado, Florida State and Iowa State.
Vaughan, a 6-foot-4 linebacker from Wixom, Michigan, committed to UW in late November, choosing the Badgers over offers from programs like Colorado, Florida State, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and others.
Vaughan is rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports and Rivals.
Vaughan has been a late-riser on the recruiting trail, with all of his Power Five offers coming since October, but he has potential to be an inside or outside linebacker for the Badgers. He could fill the big-bodied outside ‘backer role that C.J. Goetz currently has for UW or could be a hybrid type of linebacker like UW pulled in with Jake Ratzlaff in the 2021 cycle.