It’s never easy standing out on a defense that includes redshirt junior linebacker Chris Borland and redshirt senior linebacker Mike Taylor. It’s even harder when that same defense involves a smothering front four that has held opposing rushers to just 3.5 yards per carry.
But the Badgers’ veteran defensive back unit has quietly turned in quite a solid performance and has shown marked improvement since last year. Many people would be surprised to learn that the Badgers’ secondary, which has three seniors and one junior, ranks third in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game at 179.5.
It’s even more surprising that they have pulled this off during an injury-filled year. The Badgers have had three different starters at strong safety. Fifth-year senior Shelton Johnson, the team’s usual starter, was sidelined in week four with an arm injury. Redshirt sophomore Michael Trotter started the next two games against UTEP and Nebraska and redshirt freshman Mike Caputo got the starting nod last weekend against Illinois, but only played for about a half of a quarter.
Johnson says that the team wouldn’t be near to where they are right now if not for having reliable depth at the position.
“It’s just a good omen to have people like [Trotter] and Caputo to be able to step into those roles and just fill them when needed,” he said.
And having Chris Ash as the team’s position coach helps a little, as well.
Fifth-year senior Marcus Cromartie thinks that, if not for Ash’s coaching philosophy, Trotter and Caputo would not have had the confidence level to play at that starting level.
“[Ash] coached me as if I was a one,” he said when reflecting on his early starting days. “He’s going to coach you hard and he’s going to coach you hard whether you’re a one, two or three.”
“I mean, Caputo, not having him play at all and how he just came and started last week. Just think about it, it takes a lot of pride to do stuff like that. He didn’t miss a beat.”
The quiet success of the unit this year also has a lot to do with the learning experience the unit received after the heartbreaking losses last year against Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back games, dashing their national title hopes and putting a huge dent in the team’s Big Ten title aspirations at the time.
Many were skeptical of how well the secondary would bounce back from a handful of broken plays in the secondary last year. They all emphasized the fact that it was more of the opposing team capitalizing on the very few big mistakes they made rather than saying that those mistakes occurred often.
“We played well 95 percent of the time,” Johnson said. “Honestly it’s more of a consistency thing than worrying about big plays.”
Cromartie also said it has more to do with the mental approach and how much easier it has seemed now with ample experience.
“You go out there (now) and instead of worrying about messing up, you’re just trying to make plays.”
Although they haven’t necessarily made big plays (Smith’s interception last week, the team’s first this season, is the lone exception) the team has stopped the long ball even when the defensive line and linebackers’ success basically tease opposing offenses to try to throw deep.
“You watch college football these days and there’s big plays every Saturday,” Ash said. “You look at the amount of points being scored against everybody every Saturday. It’s ridiculous.”
But these types of games haven’t occurred under Wisconsin’s watch this season. They rank 29th in the nation in points against average at just 19.2 points per game and seem to show improvement on a weekly basis.
The passionate leaders the four have looked up to in their earlier years in the program hasn’t hurt, either.
All got the opportunity to play alongside former hard-hitting safety Jay Valai as well as, just last year, current Indianapolis Colt Antonio Fenelus and current Oakland Raider Aaron Henry.
Johnson offered one word when asked what he learned from those three:
“Passion,” he said. “Just putting your heart out there. When you do that it rubs off on your teammates.”
Cromartie learned some especially important things regarding adversity from the three—something that he says has already come in handy this year after losing just the second game of the season.
“Just take the good with the bad,” he said. “[They taught me] the bad is never as bad as it seems.”
They have learned to welcome this adversity and remain optimistic about their positioning heading into their critical matchup Saturday against Purdue [0-1 Big Ten, 3-2 overall].
“As a team, you always know that it’s going to strike eventually,” Johnson said. “There’s not too many seasons where you’re going to go completely undefeated.”
Cromartie thinks of his team as a sleeper in much the same way that the secondary has emerged this year.
“We kind of embrace the fact that we’re the team that nobody is thinking about anymore.”
And not worrying about what other people think of Wisconsin football allows the team to just relax and play the game they love.
“I just think our confidence,” Johnson said of what has changed the most throughout the season. “We have put more of an emphasis of actually enjoying ourselves out there instead of putting it more of like a job almost.”