CHICAGO - The Wisconsin Badgers knew they would have some holes to fill in their defensive backfield after Shelton Johnson, Devin Smith, and Marcus Cromartie exhausted their college eligibility. But even though they seem to have found replacements at cornerback in Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary, I doubt they expected to have this much trouble finding another safety to start next to Dezmen Southward.
The Badgers actually looked relatively set at safety at the end of spring camp, when Reggie Mitchell stepped up with the first team at safety and played well for a redshirt freshman. The Badgers also had JUCO safety Donnell Vercher set to join them in the summer, so everyone assumed Mitchell and Vercher would battle for a starting job.
But a lot can change over the summer, and it left the Badgers scrambling. Mitchell decided to return home and transfer to Pittsburgh, and the Badgers couldn't get Vercher admitted to school over the summer. Vercher enrolled at Fresno State instead, and it left the Badgers in a bit of a bind.
"If you look at Donnell, he's a tremendous young man," head coach Gary Andersen said Wednesday. "We don't need to get in to the 'ifs' and 'buts' and what he did or where he goes. It didn't work out here. The minute we got the phone call I communicated with Donnell what I thought was best for him. I hope h plays very well. Reggie is the same way."
But even with the roster turnover the Badgers have had to deal with at safety, Andersen said he thinks they'll be able to find another player who can start next to Dezmen Southward and take some of the pressure off of him.
"We'll be ok," Andersen said. "There's four or five kids back there that are going to battle like crazy. I'm sure they've had great summers, but we're going to find out how great of summers they've had.
"It's important for Dez to have the right guy playing with him. For Dez to be a great player, he needs some support back there so he can be a nickel sometimes, so he can blitz sometimes and not just have to sit in the post all season."
As for the main contenders at safety, Andersen said they'll try a bunch of different players back there, no matter if they've played cornerback, safety, or even running back during their careers.
"Leo Musso is back there, and I think he'll compete at that spot," Andersen said. Michael Trotter is in that position, and Trotter can do so much. And then Jeffrey Lewis would be one who jumps out.
"We'll get the four best defensive backs on the field. Whether they're tagged today as a corner or a safety, we'll see."
The Badgers also might experiment with putting T.J. Reynard and Jakarrie Washington at safety, even though they were both brought in as cornerbacks in Wisconsin's 2013 signing class.