'Who can handle what:' Leonhard using spring ball to solidify secondary

Sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks was one of the bright spots for Wisconsin in his freshman season, starting 11 games and recording four passes defended.

Sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks was one of the bright spots for Wisconsin in his freshman season, starting 11 games and recording four passes defended.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Wisconsin’s brand of football is based on its ability to be stout on the defensive side of the ball, while running the ball behind its loaded offensive line. The offense rode the legs of Jonathan Taylor to 373 yards per game last year, but the Badger defense was not as stellar as most years. The perennial top five defense finished the season ranked 35th nationally in points allowed at 22 per game.

Much of the struggles on defense can be attributed to players missing time and lack of depth across the defense, specifically at secondary. Ten different players got playing time in the back half of the year with six players making their first career starts. Sophomore safety Scott Nelson looks likely to reprise his starting role from last season, but the Badgers will need a replacement for longtime starter D’Cota Dixon.

The secondary room was filled with “guys that just wanted to play,” last year, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. The learning curve was steep as players were “humbled” and they learned that there is a “difference between playing and playing well,” Leonhard said. 

Leonhard constantly brought up the competition at the cornerback position with players being put into different roles throughout spring practices to see what sticks. Leonhard is using the spring as a time to see which players play best at which roles and who is ready to make that next step into the starting rotation. 

Underclassmen Rachad Wildgoose, Donte Burton and Madison Cone each saw major playing time throughout the year filling in for Dixon and Nelson. Currently in spring camp, the snaps and playing time has been divided among the group with different players getting looks. Sophomores Deron Harrell and Faion Hicks saw time in practice while Caesar Williams got in the mix against the number one offense. Burton got in the mix as well as Leonhard continues to keep his options open for the fall. 

“Spring is a time to really, just challenge them as much as you can and put them in different situations,” Leonhard said, as they try to find out “who can handle what."

The play of the corners has been inconsistent in spring camp and has lagged behind the safeties, but Leonhard points out they are still “significantly better than the position they were in last year."

At the back end, the competition is really to see who will fill in the role held by Dixon and pair up with Nelson. Nelson played a big role last season, starting in eight of the nine games he played but missing four games due to injury. True freshman Reggie Pearson played snaps at safety before sustaining his own injury, while junior Eric Burrell recorded his first career start. Both Pearson and Burrell started their first game on the road against rival Michigan.

As Leonhard noted, corners have been inconsistent with their play as receivers A.J. Taylor, Aron Cruikshank and Kendric Pryor have found success getting behind the secondary. This past week saw a nice twenty-yard throw from freshman quarterback Graham Mertz to Cruikshank while a pair of Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom bombs resulted in penalties on corners. 

A bright spot for the secondary was a nice play off a tipped pass where Rachad Wildgoose picked off Mertz. Safeties have made their presence known, highlighted by a couple of forced fumbles by Burrell and Nelson this past Friday. Scott Nelson’s came at the goal line during the scrimmage portion of practice where the defense held the offense to only one time in the end zone. 

As Leonhard noted, the play in the spring won’t set any roster spots for the fall season, but it still provides young players an opportunity to make an impression on coaches.

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