Pulling ahead

MADISON - Chalk Shelton Johnson's solid fall camp, one that has him in the drivers seat amidst an entertaining and productive strong safety positional battle, to experience and instincts.
He's played in meaningful games throughout his career (filled in for an injured Valai in 2010), he's made big plays (tackling the Arizona State kick returner at the one yard line) and has enough smarts to learn two positions, even though he's in the middle of one of the more hotly contested positional battles going on this fall camp.
"We've been trying to keep Aaron Henry in the thick of things and make sure he's still on top of his game," UW safeties coach DeMontie Cross said following Wednesday's morning practice. "I've been rolling Shelton over there a little bit with him, just to give him a breather every now and then. Also, I do it just to strengthen the position.
"The guys are all showing up and I roll him in there constantly because Henry is only doing one practice for us (during two-a-days) most of the time."
That move, which is relatively familiar to Johnson because he's had some experience with it in the past, allows both Johnson and Dezmen Southward an opportunity to get on the field at the same time at various points when Henry is not involved in practice.
It may be a contingency plan in case something were to sprout up with Henry during the season injury-wise, or it may simply be a glimpse into the secondary's future when Henry exhausts his eligibility following the 2011 season.
"Last year it was the plan and Shelton did the same thing," UW co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "Shelton was the backup behind Jay Valai, but he also learned the free safety position behind Aaron Henry. That's basically what we've got to do again. We'll have two guys out there. Right now it's no secret Aaron is going to be one of them.
"If Shelton is the other one, and if something happens, Shelton has the knowledge to move over and make the position switch."
For the most part, though, Johnson is firmly entrenched at the strong safety position. That's his natural position and the place where he has the most direct chance to find regular playing time this season.
"You're always in a positional battle," Johnson said. "I think I'm playing pretty well. I'm just trying to get better every day. I'm not even focusing on the battle as much as I'm trying to get better everyday myself."
Judging by the way he's received the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 defense in recent days it's apparent that Johnson has taken it upon himself to analyze and critique his shortcoming with hopes of becoming a better player.
At this time it looks as though that mindset is working because it seems as though the position is his to lose.
"Right now, if I had to put an edge on somebody I'd be honest and probably say it would go to Shelton," Cross said. "But I don't think Dez is going to give it away. He's going to continue to compete and that's what he's done. Both of those guys have been with the one's and two's and even slashed (on the depth chart).
"It's going to continue to be that way and the guy that is playing the best during the week of the UNLV game will be the guy that will get the nod."
Southward, who has finally been able to enjoy a fall camp without a cast around his wrist or without having to undergo an emergency appendectomy, has been playing very well. He's made interceptions, he's made solid tackles and he shows up in the right places more than he has in the past.
He's just inconsistent.
That is the No. 1 reason - - aside from the fact that Johnson has also played well throughout camp - - that has been keeping Southward from rising to the top of the depth chart, at least to this point.
"He just doesn't have a big background in football to start with," Ash said of Southward who has only played organized football since his senior year of high school. "So his knowledge is limited. But being in the same position, getting the same coaching points again and having spring ball under his belt from last spring really helps him a lot.
"He's so far ahead from where he was."
The season opener is two weeks away.
Both Johnson and Southward have been competing with one another throughout the entirety of camp and will continue to do so until the opening kickoff inside a buzzing Camp Randall comes around. It's been a fun positional battle to witness simply because it's easy to tell both players have the team's best interests in mind.
It's competitive, but it's not personal.
"A lot of people ask me (about the positional battle)," Southward said. "I just think every position on the field is a positional battle. We just happen to be one of them. We're helping each other, but at the same time we're competing. We both want to be on the field come game day. If it stays the way it is, or if things change, I'm sure both of us will still play if we're playing at a high enough level.
"It's definitely competitive and I definitely want to be the guy on game day, but if he's better than me I have no problem with him being out there before me because it's the team before me."