MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin’s defensive backs break their final huddle after a spring practice, they generally yell one word in unison as a reminder of where the group has been and where it wants to go: “Standards!”
The idea is to reinforce how high expectations are, even with a unit full of underclassmen who have little or no college playing experience. Consider that safety Scott Nelson and cornerback Faion Hicks each took their redshirt seasons as freshmen in 2017. Cornerback Caesar Williams played in two games.
Cornerback Madison Cone appeared in nine games with 1 tackle and 1 pass breakup. Safety Patrick Johnson appeared in four games before sustaining a season-ending arm injury and has 3 career tackles. Safeties Eric Burrell and Seth Currens combined for 7 tackles. Cornerback Donte Burton is an early enrollee who now has practiced with the team for two weeks.
All are vying for major playing time in 2018. None will be older eligibility-wise than a redshirt sophomore. Yet the collective mindset of the group is overwhelming confidence about what it can achieve together.
“Last year, the big thing we talked about was the standard,” Cone said. “We’ve got to hold ourselves to a certain level. The guys that are here now, we don’t feel like we’re dropping off at all. I know everybody from the outside looking in is looking at how that DB group is going to hold up. But we feel like we’ve got a treat coming for everybody Game 1.”
Wisconsin’s most experienced defensive back is senior D’Cota Dixon, who is out this spring while recovering from a right shoulder injury. The second-most experienced defensive back is cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams, who remains out with an abdominal injury. That means loads of opportunities for a young group that is eager to prove it belongs on the big stage.
Wisconsin must replace both of its starting cornerbacks — Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal — as well as starting safety Natrell Jamerson off a team that finished 13-1 and won the Orange Bowl. The Badgers ranked No. 5 in pass defense in the FBS last season, allowing 163.6 yards per game. They also tied for second nationally with 20 interceptions. This came one season after Wisconsin tied for second with 22 interceptions.
With Dixon out this spring, Wisconsin’s top safeties have been Johnson and Scott Nelson, who traveled with the team late last season. Williams, Hicks and Cone continue to rotate at the top cornerback spots with Carriere-Williams sidelined.
Given who will be playing on the back end this fall, Badgers players say they expect opposing quarterbacks to test them early downfield. And they already are looking forward to the challenge.
“Definitely,” Cone said. “No question. And that’s the thing we talk about all the time. We’re like, ‘We’re going to have so many opportunities.’ A lot of it’s going to be on us. When you look at our linebacker corps, they’re coming back strong. The D-line is going to be strong. They’re going to look out and they’re going to be like, ‘All right, the edges are young.’ … They’re going to make us earn our stripes.”
‘We’re going to surprise a lot of people’
With a group as youthful and inexperienced as Wisconsin’s secondary, there are bound to be ebbs and flows in performance level. During practice Tuesday, for example, the Badgers defensive backs collectively struggled. Reserve wide receiver Jack Dunn caught 4 touchdown passes, including a 45-yard strike from quarterback Jack Coan.
But on Thursday, Wisconsin’s defensive backs were outstanding. Hicks intercepted 2 passes and nearly secured a third in the back of the end zone during red zone drills. Hicks picked off starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook when he overthrew receiver A.J. Taylor on a deep post route. His second interception came off a deflection in red zone drills. He broke up a pass from the 5-yard line on a throw from quarterback Danny Vanden Boom intended for tight end Kyle Penniston.
Hicks said coaches had been preaching to him the past few days to stay on top of the post route in Wisconsin’s cover 4 defense. Hicks played the route perfectly and broke just in time for his first interception of the day.
“Guys aren’t too far off, and we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Hicks said. “Most of the guys that were here last year, we worked so hard, we’ve been in so many practices so that we are comfortable when it’s time for us to go out there and make plays. Just being confident is the whole key.”
On another play later in practice, Nelson put a monster hit on tight end Luke Benzschawel after he turned upfield on a short catch over the middle, which drew loud cheers from members of Wisconsin’s defense.
“As a DB here, you’ve got to have that swag,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to have that confidence. The other day, we didn’t, and we had a bad practice. It goes hand in hand. If we have that energy, that juice, we have a better chance to have a good practice. When you walk out here, you’ve got to think we’re the most fun group, we’re the best group, and I think that’s the standard we live by.”
Cone and Nelson are among the young defensive backs to have made significant strides since joining the program a year ago. Cone said last season represented the first time he had ever focused strictly on football. Cone was an excellent high school basketball player at East Forsyth High in Kernersville, N.C., who earned all-conference honors in consecutive seasons. After his basketball season ended, he went right into the AAU season and only showed up for football on the first day of practice.
Nelson and Dixon have been almost inseparable since Nelson arrived on campus, with Dixon taking on a mentorship role. Nelson said Dixon pushes him to understand the playbook as well as, if not better, than Dixon. All the time Wisconsin’s defensive backs have spent in the film room and with the playbook are beginning to pay off early in spring practice.
Wisconsin defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard has tried to stress the importance of trusting technique. If players spend enough time on learning the basic fundamentals to being a sound defensive back, then those lessons will naturally carry over to games without requiring much thought.
So far, so good.
“It’s going to be a big-time learning curve this spring,” Leonhard said. “We’re going to throw a lot of stuff at them. Just teaching why. Why we do certain things and some of the adjustments we’re going to have to make come this season. We play a lot of offenses that are different than our offense. So it’s getting those guys to understand that there’s certain concepts that we may be practicing in spring ball, it’s not really for our offense. Just to expose them to different things.
“We’re going to throw a lot at them and see who can handle what and where they’re at. But I love their approach. Pretty much that whole group of DBs is just hungry to get better. They ask questions. They want to learn. Any time you have that mentality, you’ve got a chance.”