MADISON, Wis. - During spring ball a year ago, the secondary was one of the multiple positions that were banged up with injuries. Both Aaron Henry and former Badger Allen Langford were recovering from ACL injuries that allowed for several of the younger corners to step into their role.
Then during the 2008 season, the reps in spring carried over to the fall as Niles Brinkley and Chris Maragos, among others, received plenty of game action. Fast forward to 2009 and the ongoing spring practice, and this secondary unit is one of the deeper ones in recent memory.
Following an earlier practice, BadgerBlitz.com caught up with secondary coach Kerry Cooks to discuss the progress of the unit. The following is a question and answer with Cooks:
To start, it must feel good to get back out here.
Cooks: It is great to get back out here.
How did the first few practices gone?
Cooks: They've been good. I think that one thing we're trying to emphasize is just keeping it simple so we're not trying to throw the whole playbook at the guys and trying to let them focus on their alignments and assignments. It's a more and more of a detail type of spring ball so they can really hone in on their skills fundamentally and carry that over into the fall.
Is that something that wasn't there in the past?
Cooks: I wouldn't say that it wasn't there, but I think that this is probably the slowest spring install that I've been a part of. Obviously when you're installing you're always talking about focusing on fundamentals and details, but the more you got in the harder it is. So I think when you slow it down and install piece by piece, you really take your time to be detailed with everything and the kids really understand and can adjust to every formation. So that will make those guys better in the long run.
Just talking more in particular with guys, I see Antonio Fenelus out there running pretty well with the first unit. What has he shown you in regards to how he has improved?
Cooks: He's shown me that he's, one, he's a physical dude which I love. He's shown the capacity to handle a lot of things mentally to where we feel comfortable with him being out there with his aggressiveness and understanding our schemes to be able to go out there and play and produce for us.
Is that something that you're hoping to get more of? That physicality?
Cooks: We are, especially at the corner spot. I think that we have it and that we got some guys that are some pretty sound tacklers in Niles Brinkley, Fenelus, Otis Merrill is a guy that is coming along which we really need him to come along and Devin Smith. So, it's just a matter of getting those guys to buy into our system and trigger the way we want them to trigger.
With Aaron Henry out there, do you notice a bit more of a swagger with the entire secondary?
Cooks: I do and I tell you what, that's what we missed last year. He's just got that personality. You can't tell him, he may not be the biggest, the strongest, the fastest or the smartest, but he's all of that. He just comes out there and he's confident in anything that he does.
Is he back to where he was prior to the injury physically?
Cooks: I haven't noticed a different. I had an opportunity to watch him toward the tail end of our bowl prep and he looked a little sluggish. I think the first day he came out here he was a little sluggish, but every since then I think he's kind of found his niche, his rhythm and he's been off and running. Everyday you kind of see that confidence is coming back more and more. He's a little bit tighter on wide receivers, a little bit tighter coverage, a little bit more aggressiveness on his runs and replacing on his crack blocks and things like that.
How's his closing speed?
Cooks: Good, good. The thing that makes Aaron a good player with the ability to be a great player is he reminds me so much of Allen Langford from a mental standpoint. He's always going to be in the right position. 90 percent of the time he's going to be in the right position as to where it will be an easy transition for him to go and try to make that play. So he's not going to be that far out of position. That's the thing that he does that you try to get your whole unit to try and do, is be smarter.
At the end of last year, switching over to Shane Carter here, he missed the bowl game with off the field issues. How has he come into spring ball? Does he kind of have a different attitude?
Cooks: Yeah, I think that Shane realized that he had some up and down, inconsistent habits. Then obviously the violation of the team rule which eliminated him from bowl prep, he came back, we had our conversation and we talked and kind of got on the same page. He hasn't said two words. I think that he's determined in his mind to come out here and prove that he deserves to be a starter, that he can make all the tackles that we're asking him to make, that he can make the checks and line up the right way and be a leader back there in the secondary.
Is that what you told him in spring ball, that this is his opportunity to show that he can get back in the starter role?
Cooks: Absolutely, absolutely. I told him that when we found out that he wasn't going to play in the bowl game. I said right now there is nothing we can do about you being out of the bowl game. You need to get your mind ready for spring ball and you need to reflect back on this season and the prior season to ways that you can improve yourself. Your attitude needs to be, "OK, show improvement everyday.' And I think he's doing that.
Was there every any talk of moving him to wide receiver at all?
Cooks: No, two years ago maybe, but not since then. I mean, he's a senior, a veteran, he's got a lot of experience for us as a starter for two years. Nothing up to this season.
One of the younger guys, Shelton Johnson, he's back there getting a lot of reps. What has he shown you?
Cooks: Again, he's a kid that hadn't quite figured it all out yet as far as our defense, but he's a great open field tackler. He's a smart player man, he's just one of those guys that's always around the ball. I'm excited about his growth and his progress and I can't wait to see how he ends up at the end of the day when he figures it out exactly what we're trying to get done.
Has there been any scholarship talk with Chris Maragos at all?
Cooks: I don't make those decisions, that's a decision that coach B (Bret Bielema) will make at the end of the day. That's a conversation that I haven't had with him because I'm not in a position to make that. But obviously he's a big part of what we do and if he was given one, then he would definitely deserve it.
How would you say the depth of the entire secondary unit is? Would you say it's the deeper than it has been?
Cooks: A lot deeper. I've got seven guys that have started at some point back there. So, I've got four safeties that have started and I've got three corners that have started and some talented young corners. We feel good, but at the end of the day, experience isn't anything if those guys don't apply it on the field and that's what you've got to continue. You can have a lot of experience and still play bad. These guys have got to take the experiences that they've had, share it with the younger guys as well as when they're on the field they've got to use it.
I know it's still early in spring, but are you seeing that at all?
Cooks: I see it inconsistently which is probably what you would expect for the first week. But now, finishing up the last three weeks, you'd like to see those guys put it all together with the communication, recognizing formation, with the understanding of what the concept of what the offense is trying to do based off what scheme we are. Those are the things that these guys have enough experience where they need to start utilizing that.
The following is the audio file from the interview:
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