Wisconsin's quarterbacks are going to get a lot of attention this fall. That's par for the course at Camp Randall, though. The Badgers should be used to quarterback battles by now, considering they've had one during fall camp in each of the last two seasons.
But while most cameras and eyes will be watching Joel Stave, Tanner McEvoy, and Curt Phillips duel for the starting job, I'd argue that the competition in the defensive backfield is going to be much more interesting. For one thing, the Badgers haven't had a lot of turnover in their defensive backfield recently. They were lucky to return at least two starting defensive backs in each of their last three seasons, but this year Dezmen Southward is their lone returning starter. And while Southward is one of the most athletically gifted players on the team, he can't hold down the fort by himself.
The Badgers need to identify one other starter at safety, as well as two new starters at cornerback. The decisions the new coaching staff makes will say a lot about where they want Wisconsin's defense to go, and just how they see it trying to stop other teams in their tracks. So with under a week left until camp starts, here are the storylines you should watch in the defensive backfield.
Who starts opposite Southward at safety?
If you had asked me this question at the end of spring camp, it wouldn't have taken me very long to say that Donnell Vercher would probably start, and Reggie Mitchell would see a lot of game action when Southward shifted over to play nickel back.
But in case you hadn't noticed, neither player will be on campus with the Badgers this fall. Vercher, a former JUCO player, couldn't get admitted to Wisconsin and enrolled instead at Fresno State. And Mitchell caught almost everyone off guard when news broke that he would be transferring to Pittsburgh this season.
So in a blink of an eye the Badgers were back to square one at safety. Head coach Gary Andersen mentioned Leo Musso, Jeff Lewis, and Michael Trotter at the Big Ten media days when asked who might step up this fall, but it's really any one's guess as to which player will eventually start for the Badgers opposite Southward. Musso redshirted last season, Lewis just switched to defensive back from running back, and personally I'm not convinced that Trotter has the speed to stick there.
If any of those players emerges as a legitimate option at safety, my money is on Lewis. He was buried at running back behind James White and Melvin Gordon, but he's an athletically gifted player and has great speed to the point where I thought he would be an intriguing option for the Badgers at wide receiver. Unlike Trotter, I have no doubt that Lewis could run down receivers in coverage should he win the job- it's just a matter of how quickly he adjusts to the other side of the ball.
The Badgers will also probably throw T.J. Reynard into the mix, and just based on Andersen's track record I'd assume that they'll give him a chance to play at safety if they aren't impressed with their other options there. I have yet to see Reynard play in person, but with so much uncertainty at safety it wouldn't surprise me to see Reynard win a lot of reps there this fall.
Who do the Badgers go to at cornerback?
Compared to the jigsaw puzzle the Badgers need to piece together at safety, finding two new starters at cornerback seems pretty simple, especially since they have two qualified candidates already on the team. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary have 33 games played between them during their college careers, which gives the Badgers a little bit of experience to lean on. Neither player has started a game for the Badgers, but even last year Jean was probably one of the team's best tacklers, and Hillary got a lot of reps as the third cornerback for a redshirt freshmen. We'll see if the two of them can handle a starter's workload, but at least the pieces are already there for the Badgers to work with.
They will have to flesh out the rest of their depth chart at cornerback, though. Devin Gaulden has been plagued by injuries during his career, but if he's healthy this could be the year where he contributes like the old coaching staff thought he would as a true freshman. Sojourn Shelton also had a nice first spring with the Badgers as an early enrollee, but he'll need to put on some extra weight to make sure receivers can't throw him away when they go out on a route.
Jakarrie Washington will be on campus this fall as well, and his speed could give him a leg up if the Badgers give him some reps at either cornerback or safety. Andersen said not many players will have defined positions right away in camp, so it will be interesting to see where the coaching staff puts each player during their first few practices.