MADISON, Wis. – Sojourn Shelton’s job is to read people.
Wisconsin’s senior cornerback draws on every movement, every fake and all the body language of opposing receivers to make a play.
He’s good at it, too, much to his teammates’ delight.
And, occasionally, their dismay.
“(Shelton) knows me too well, so me and him go at it all the time,” Wisconsin wide receiver Rob Wheelwright told Landof10.com Tuesday. “During practice it’s like, ‘Forget you, I’m catching this ball,’ and he’s thinking the opposite.
“We’re the best of friends off the field, but on the field, we’re enemies,” he added, laughing.
Wheelwright may hate getting picked apart in practice, but it gives him a front-row seat to what makes his friend and teammate so great: his intelligence.
A high football IQ, brain over brawn, whatever you want to call it, the 5-foot-9, 176-pound Shelton has it. He knows the game and his teammates maybe better than they know themselves. That knowledge combined with his athleticism has made Shelton lethal to passing attacks all season.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) will need him to stay dangerous the remainder of the season. Along with Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern, their opponent Saturday in Evanston, Ill., the Badgers are one game behind Nebraska in the Big Ten West. They’re No. 8 in the first College Football Playoff rankings. A win against the Wildcats (4-4, 3-2) is a vital next step toward their postseason goals.
The previous step was getting through the Cornhuskers. Last Saturday, Wisconsin topped Nebraska 23-17 in overtime largely because of Shelton’s smart play. He finished with 4 tackles, 2 pass breakups and added his second interception of the season.
Shelton was also key on the final play. On fourth-and-goal in overtime, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. tossed one up to Stanley Morgan Jr. in the back corner of the end zone after he ran past Shelton, but Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon batted it down.
It was textbook. Shelton knew it. Every Wisconsin player on the field knew it.
Folks on Twitter, though? Much less in the know.
Shelton caught flak on social media for the way people thought he let Morgan get past him. He responded briefly that night, but really set the haters straight Monday via the media.
Ppl must not know what 2 man is ??
— Sojourn Shelton II (@_SDS8) October 30, 2016
“We’re in two-man,” Shelton said. “For the people who don’t know what two-man is, for the cornerback, it’s trail technique to make sure any undercutting routes you basically undercut and take a risk on knowing you have a safety over the top … (Morgan ) ran a double move so I bit on it knowing that D’Cota was over the top.
“If anybody doesn’t know what two-man is, Google does explain what two-man is if you don’t know what it is,” he added, getting the whole room to laugh.
The statement didn’t surprise his teammates.
“Sojourn’s quiet until you say something and he feels disrespected,” Wheelwright said. “I’m glad he said what he said.”
Shelton typically saves the knowledge bombs for his teammates, though, which cornerback Derrick Tindal said has catapulted Wisconsin’s defense to a different level this season.
For Tindal, Shelton is pretty much a coach in cleats. He knows every detail of his own role and how it works in sync with the secondary as a whole.
“I look (up) to Sojourn,” Tindal said. “He’s the perfect example of a leader that you want in your room, as far as film and just being there for you. All around, he’s just a perfect leader. I really appreciate that, and I know everybody in the room appreciates it because when we need somebody to talk to about anything, just about life or anything, we go to Sojourn.”
Ask Shelton about anyone, he knows his guys. Not only their physical strengths and weaknesses, but mental ones, too — even if they play a different position.
He knew what safety Lubern Figaro needed to come into his own this season and knew the moment it happened.
“To be honest with you, (Figaro needed) confidence,” Shelton said. “Coach (Jim) Leonhard brought that in the room from Day One.
“I think that’s where Lubern was able to gravitate toward him as far as, ‘This coach truly believes in me and even if I do get beat, coach Leonhard understands and he can teach me why.’ ”
Figaro has seen an increased role this season with the loss of Natrell Jamerson to a left-leg injury, so confidence has been a must. Shelton credits Leonhard with fostering it, but Figaro and his teammates often look to Shelton himself for those cues.
“He knows the game, in and out,” Figaro said of Shelton. “And he teaches all of us a lot of things about confidence and playing together, about being a family.”
School will most certainly be in session Saturday. The Wildcats have arguably the most intelligent team in the conference, having put the most players on the Academic All-Big Ten team three years in a row.
And it carries over to the field, especially for Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Shelton said Thorson is a quick thinker, so he and Tindal will need to get in his head to get at the passes.
“It’s how we can play good technique and be just consistently close to make that quarterback feel us, like, ‘If I throw this ball on this comeback, (number) 8 or (number) 2-5 has been there every single time.’ (Give) that feeling of, ‘If I don’t throw it in the perfect spot, it could be picked off.’ ”
Wisconsin hasn’t won in Evanston, Ill., since 1999 and has dropped four consecutive contests to the Wildcats, but can’t afford another Saturday — or the rest of the season, for that matter.
The Badgers will follow Shelton’s lead and work smarter, not harder, during the four remaining conference games.
Starting with Northwestern, the smartest of them all.
“I think it is easy to buy into what people might be saying outside as far as getting through the gauntlet and this being the easy part of the schedule, but no part of playing in college football games is easy,” Shelton said. “Week in and week out, top-ranked teams play teams that they should beat, (and) somehow, some way, one of those teams loses. For us, it’s just a matter of, no matter who we play, just being us.”