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March 8, 2013

Spring preview: Defensive backs





Taken as a whole, Wisconsin has a lot of experience returning in 2013. Six of their seven starters in the front seven will be back on defense, including the entire defensive line. They also just lose three offensive starters from last year, and have more depth at quarterback than they've had in years.

But when you look at the defensive backfield, the Badgers aren't quite so lucky this season. They have just one starter coming back this season in free safety Dezmen Southward. Both starting cornerbacks are gone too, which means the Badgers will be essentially starting from scratch on the outside.

Throw in Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda's new 3-4 defensive scheme and the Badgers have a lot of issues to address in spring camp. Let's dive right in.

Who starts at cornerback?

The Badgers need to identify two new starters at cornerback with Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie out of the picture. But the Badgers are fortunate in that one spot seems pretty set, barring injury. Redshirt junior Peniel Jean missed all but five games last season after he broke his foot in fall camp, but he's a good bet to take one of the starting jobs and run with it this spring. Even with two seniors on the team last year, Jean was arguably the best tackler in the secondary, and played in all 14 games as a redshirt freshman two years ago. As long as his foot is healthy, Jean will probably emerge from spring ball with a starting job well in hand.

The second cornerback spot is a little more interesting. The top two candidates are probably Devin Gaulden and Darius Hillary, as long as the Badgers don't move Hillary to safety. Gaulden and Hillary joined the Badgers in the same recruiting class, but Hillary took a redshirt season and still has more games played than Gaulden. Both players are pretty talented and have the physical profile to play corner.

However, Hillary finished higher on the depth chart at the end of the year than Gaulden did. He also got a lot of experience on the field as Wisconsin's primary nickel back last year. It could be that Andersen and his staff will like Gaulden better this spring, but my money is on Hillary to win the starting job before the start of the season.

Can the Badgers play man-to-man coverage?

Wisconsin's defensive line and linebackers will get a lot of attention for rotating between the 4-3 and the 3-4 this season, but their secondary has a big shift to make too. Andersen said his corners would play man-to-man defense for the most part instead of playing in a zone or giving opposing receivers a cushion.

This is big philosophical shift for the Badgers, who often frustrated fans by giving opposing receivers what looked like a free five yards or so on each play. Backing the corners up is part of a conservative philosophy designed to prevent receivers from getting behind the defense, but it's clear Andersen and Aranda want to be a little more aggressive in their schemes.

That means they'll have to trust their corners to lock up receivers without a lot of extra help from safeties over the top. Having Jean and Hillary or Gaulden disrupt receivers off the line could give the Badgers more time to rush the passer in a blitz, or even just throw off an offense's timing and force more incompletions.

Of course, the risk is that Wisconsin's corners won't be able to go toe-to-toe with the better receivers in the Big Ten. If the Badgers can't play man-to-man defense well, you'll probably see more of the long completions that burned the team so often during the 2011 season. It's a risk-reward play, and we'll get an idea in spring camp of how well man-to-man defense will pay off for the Badgers this season.

What's the depth like at safety?

The Badgers also need to fill a starting spot at safety, but this position battle will likely carry on into fall camp. The Badgers signed a good JUCO safety in Donnell Vercher after Andersen took over as head coach, but Vercher won't be on campus until this summer and won't participate in spring camp. Andersen said JUCO players would get every opportunity to compete for starting jobs once they arrive on campus, and he's a good bet to win the strong safety job this fall once he's officially on campus.

But behind Southward and Vercher, the depth at safety isn't well established. Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo both saw time on the field last season, but both players didn't really make a mark on the field, forcing the Badgers to look at the JUCO channels to get some immediate help for this season. The Badgers also flirted with moving Darius Hillary to safety at times last season, but like I mentioned before I'm guessing he stays at corner this season.

Either way, the Badgers will need to develop a little more depth at safety this spring. They were exposed a little bit when Shelton Johnson broke his arm last season and Trotter had to start for a few games, and with two other inexperienced corners in tow they can't afford for many lapses should Vercher or Southward have to miss some time.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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