March 21, 2011

Spring outlook: Cornerbacks

When Chris Ash began his career at Wisconsin just one year ago it didn't take long for him to make a splash. The fundamental disciplinarian (now defensive coordinator) immediately made a change at the cornerback position.

Instead of keeping Devin Smith in the starting lineup as an every down corner, he replaced him with Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus. Smith, who was a preseason All-Big Ten selection entering the 2010 season, was now the No. 3 cornerback and really only played in nickel or dime situations throughout the year.

That was quite the move for a first-year coach in a new environment to make, especially considering the accolades Smith was garnering. But it worked out.

Fenelus and Brinkley proved to be a solid - not great by any means, but solid - one-two punch in the defensive backfield for the Badgers. When Smith came into the game, he was a pretty essential piece to the puzzle in his own right. Overall, the Badger secondary, one that struggled mightily the season prior, seemed improved.

Now, with spring ball set to begin Tuesday afternoon, it looks as though the cornerback position will need similar production from a number of players. Last year's success on the field didn't start from scratch. It was molded in spring ball and continually chiseled throughout fall camp.

As Fenelus and Smith are set to begin camp atop the depth chart at the position, it's up to a number of younger players to step up and fill the void that remains open at some valuable nickel and dime positions.

Players like Marcus Cromartie, a guy that seems to be on the brink of becoming a viable option only to continually fall short with inconsistency, will have plenty of opportunity this spring.

Peniel Jean, who enters his first spring camp, will get more reps running with the Wisconsin defense than he likely had at any portion during the regular season during his first year on campus.

Will he be able to take advantage of that opportunity? Will he be able to pick up on the things some of the more veteran players have been trying to teach him?

"They just told me to make sure I work every day since I'm redshirting," Jean said during UW's bowl prep. "So take advantage of it because I'm going against the ones every day in practice. Make sure I get in and watch film and try to get better every day."

Really, what spring camp comes down to is opportunity. And with only the top two corner spots really secured there will be plenty of opportunity for the younger guys on the roster.

Andrew Lukasko, a hard-working senior walk-on, may be one of the dark horses to make a run at playing time this spring. He won't wow you with his athleticism or speed, but he is that prototypical heady player that works hard to get everything out of his talent. Consistency, especially at the corner position, is one of the most important things. If he can prove to be a consistent player that makes a play here or there, he could easily finish spring camp with a chance to be in the two-deep come August.

Unfortunately, Jameson Wright will miss spring camp as he continues to recover from the torn ACL he suffered during practice last season. He would have been another guy that could have made some noise this spring. Hopefully he will continue to progress in his rehab enough to participate at some level during fall camp.

Finally, Darius Feaster and Jerry Ponio, a couple of walk-on reserves, will have a chance to gain valuable experience this spring with a bevy of reps. It will be interesting to see how they progress as the spring season wears on.

SPRING CAMP PREDICTION:

One of the most curious trends to pay attention to this spring at the corner position is how Smith adjusts to being back in the starting lineup. Having played in that role as a sophomore, only to get bumped as a junior, Smith will have a chance to bounce back and play at a high level on a down-by-down basis.

Like Smith, it will also be intriguing to see if Cromartie finds that level of consistency that has been plaguing him throughout the years. He's got natural ball skills and great athleticism, but he just lets things get away from him a little too easily. If he's to find a consistent level of playing time this spring he will need to prove that he's able to be that reliable corner every rep he gets.

As a senior now, Fenelus will be one of the better players on the defensive side of the ball. He's just a consistent player that seems to take it upon himself to be as good as he can be. He's got the drive to be great and that's something that can't really be taught. As the No. 1 corner entering spring camp, Fenelus will have the task of working against Nick Toon on a play-by-play basis. You would think that would work in his favor as a cornerback.

Otherwise, watching some younger players battle for a spot in the two-deep will be one of the better storylines to follow during spring camp.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:

CB:

DEVIN SMITH - SR
MARCUS CROMARTIE - R-JR
PENIEL JEAN - R-FR

CB:

ANTONIO FENELUS - SR
ANDREW LUKASKO - SR



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