Badger secondary contains several question marks
Cornerback Niles Brinkley, a fifth-year senior, played his best overall football at UW. Fellow cornerback Antonio Fenelus continued his upward arc and led the team in interceptions (four) and passes defended (11). Aaron Henry, playing his first season at free safety after working at cornerback for two seasons, was a better player in Game 13 than in Game 1. Strong safety Jay Valai didn’t always perform up to his standards but played hurt and gave the unit all he had.
Named co-defensive coordinator after the Rose Bowl to replace the departed Dave Doeren, Ash enters his second season with an opportunity to make a more significant impact.
One change could be more press coverage from the cornerbacks than in past seasons. At least that is what the players hope.
“Coach Ash really likes for us to get physical,” Fenelus, a senior, said. “I would prefer to press.”
Henry, also a senior, said of Fenelus: “He is one of those guys, if he could he would press you every down.”
Whatever schemes Ash eventually elects to feature, UW enters preseason camp today with several question marks in the secondary.
Fenelus and fifth-year senior Devin Smith closed the spring as the clear choices to start at cornerback.
“Since I’ve been here it’s probably the most balanced we’ve been at the corner position,” said Bret Bielema, entering his sixth season as head coach and eighth season overall at UW. “We’ve always had one guy and maybe the other side was in waiting. Devin is playing extremely well. Antonio has continued to grow.”
Smith, a 13-game starter in 2009, must perform at a higher level than he did last season. His play in the spring and preseason camp was lacking and he opened the season as the third cornerback behind Fenelus and Brinkley.
Smith struggled early in that role, came on late in the season but then had a forgettable performance in the loss to Texas Christian in the Rose Bowl.
“I was there before so it is nothing new to me,” Smith said of returning to the starting lineup. “I want to make sure my technique is perfect. I want to make sure I’m in the vicinity to always be able to make a play whenever the ball comes my way and that I’m not giving up any plays.
“And if a receiver does catch a ball that it is contested, and he’s getting hit in the mouth right away.”
When UW was making its Big Ten Conference title push last November, the staff felt it had three capable cornerbacks.
The third cornerback entering camp this summer is Marcus Cromartie, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound redshirt junior who played sparingly in five games last season.
Cromartie appears to have the physical tools necessary to be the third cornerback in the team’s nickel package.
However, after making gains in spring 2010, Cromartie peaked in camp and never was able to break into the regular rotation.
Ash hopes this season will bring different results.
“This spring my emphasis with Cromartie was to show that daily improvement,” Ash said. “But then if you hit that wall, don’t drop off. Continue to push through it both mentally and physically. Continue to improve.
“I think he is starting to understand how to do that.”
Bielema believes he has three capable safeties, but only Henry is proven.
As he grew more comfortable at free safety, Henry became more of a playmaker. He had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns, tied for the No. 2 mark on the team in passes defended (nine) and finished tied for fourth in tackles (58).
But can either Dezmen Southward or Shelton Johnson provide stability at strong safety?
Johnson opened the spring as the No. 1 strong safety, but Southward made a late push. It appears the battle will continue in camp.
“I think we’ve got three safeties that can play Big Ten football on a winning level,” Bielema said.
Time will tell whether that assessment is accurate and whether Cromartie can be a dependable third cornerback.