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March 4, 2014
Spring preview: Defensive backs
MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin's defensive backs are about to go through an interesting transition for a position group that only lost one senior from last year's squad.
Both starters are back at cornerback, but the Badgers suddenly need to find two new starting safeties with Michael Caputo now at linebacker and Tanner McEvoy on the other side of the ball at quarterback. That puts a lot of pressure on a defensive unit that might have to pick up some of the slack while the front seven gels together, but it is a price the Badgers are willing to pay if Caputo can help shore up an inexperienced linebacker corps and if McEvoy can stick at quarterback.
Here's what I'll be watching in the secondary as the Badgers move through spring camp:
The smart money says there's not going to be a whole lot of movement here. Sojourn Shelton finished the season as Wisconsin's top cornerback after he intercepted four passes in just his first season with the team. He should have no trouble holding on to a starting job, especially with another season's worth of work in the weight room behind him. At 5-foot-9 Shelton needs the extra muscle to make sure bigger receivers don't push him around near the line of scrimmage.
There's a little bit more uncertainty at Wisconsin's other cornerback spot. Peniel Jean was listed as the other starting cornerback for most of the season, with Darius Hillary slotting in to play as a nickel back. It seemed like the Badgers trusted Hillary to play man-to-man more often last year, though, which could give him an edge for more playing time this spring.
Behind those three players the Badgers will probably rotate a combination of T.J. Reynard, Hugs Etienne and A.J. Jordan, who moved from wide receiver during last year's bowl practices. Reynard saw action on special teams last year and Etienne should be ready to go physically after he struggled to put on extra muscle during his first few semesters with the Badgers. In the end the Badgers are going to prioritize players who can come in and play on an island- they'll have to do that more often with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda committed to blitzing more often in his second year with the team.
Like I mentioned before, safety is going to be an interesting position to watch this spring. As of right now the Badgers will probably start with Leo Musso and Nate Hammon on their first team. Musso and Hammon both saw action in each of Wisconsin's 13 games, but I'm not sure if they're a long-term answer at the position. The Badgers will likely wait until fall camp to make any decisions about playing time anyway, because incoming recruit Serge Trezy is expected to come in and compete for reps right away.
We will get to see Austin Hudson get some snaps at safety this spring after he enrolled early with the Badgers. An athletic prospect who wrapped up his recruitment quickly, Hudson likely would have had more offers if he hadn't gotten hurt during high school. I wouldn't expect him to compete for a staring job in his first season, but it seems likely that Hudson and the other early enrollees will benefit greatly from the extra practice time.
It's also possible that someone like Keelon Brookins or Joe Ferguson could come in and compete at their spots. Brookins should be healthy at least after he enrolled early last year and finished rehabbing a torn ACL.
But in the end I wouldn't be surprised if the Badgers move McEvoy back to safety at some point later on in fall camp. It's a position that requires athleticism and experience, and McEvoy has some of both after seeing time there last season. If he falls out of the running for the quarterback spot moving him back to defense gives the Badgers a better chance to win games.
Projected depth chart:
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.