MADISON, Wis. - The fall from grace was well documented when Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant were unable to perform at a high enough level to maintain their hold as the starting safeties in 2008. Too many blown coverage's, missed tackles and shoddy angles opened the door for Jay Valai and Chris Maragos to step in.
Now, with the 2009 season on the horizon, the fact that Carter and Pleasant still find themselves as backups remains, but it is in a different light than the one cast a season ago.
"The thing I am most excited about in that transition is that all of those guys are together," Wisconsin secondary coach Kerry Cooks said following Tuesday's practice. "Shane and Aubrey both understand why Valai and Maragos are in front of them at this point, but at the same time, those guys, Jay and Maragos, aren't going to give it up but Aubrey and Shane aren't just going to sit back and let that happen.
"So the competition is ridiculous and I love it."
That competitive nature will go through the entirety of fall camp. Both Carter and Pleasant had much improved spring camps and were pushing the projected starters at a high rate. Couple the improved play from the seniors along with the struggles Maragos and Valai had at certain points, particularly in coverage, and there is plenty of work that needs to be done.
"There's definitely room for improvement in certain areas and certain coverage's from a defensive back standpoint," Cooks said. "That's kind of a daily grind and focus for us. We want to be the best, we don't want to give up any balls, especially big plays.
"I think that was the biggest thing that happened to us last year."
From the time Dezmen Southward pledged his allegiance by verbally committing to UW, all the rage was about his athleticism. The true freshman from St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, has only played football for one full year prior to accepting a scholarship with the Badgers, but has still managed to impress his position coach.
"He's been a basketball player for most of his high school career," Cooks said. "The kid is a tremendous athlete, he can run, I think he has a 43-inch vertical jump and the thing about it is he's got a lot of growth area. His football IQ has got to expand and that's the part we're working on right now."
Certainly there are things that can translate from the basketball court to the gridiron. Game instincts, jumping ability, soft hands and vision are all some of the things that come to mind. But when you only have one year of experience in a sport you are trying to play at a division one level, development is the number one priority.
"When you got an athlete like that, now it's my responsibility to make sure he develops," Cooks said. "That's extra time on the field, that's extra meeting time. Anything that he needs from a football IQ standpoint, because he's not going to know a lot, then that's up to me to make sure that he develops that.
"At the same time, he's got to be somebody that wants that and he's that kid."
Though it's very early in camp still, Southward's pure athletic ability has the coaching staff wondering whether he can contribute on special teams right away. If he shows he would be a valuable asset in that area, he will likely bypass a redshirt option.
"With his ability, a kid like that could help you on special teams," Cooks said. "I don't see him right now with our depth-I'm feeling pretty comfortable where we're at in the secondary with our experience-I think if it's just talking strictly about secondary play, I would love to redshirt him and have that year to work with him.
"But obviously, if we need the kid and he's got the ability to play on all the special teams units, then we've got to take that into consideration."
Cromartie makes major strides:
Throughout spring practice, it became evident that Marcus Cromartie had the propensity to be around the ball. He was the very definition of a ball hawk as he consistently made plays on balls thrown his way. And that was when he was weighing in at 163 pounds.
Since then, he has added nearly 30 pounds and came into camp as a 6-foot-1, 191 pound corner.
"He's very quiet, he doesn't go out there and doesn't showboat," Cooks said. "He's very athletic and he's a speed guy. He was a 21.2 200-meter guy. He's always around the ball. You just hope that he continues to elevate himself and push himself and takes himself to that next level."
Aaron Henry looking to get back into form:
After missing all of 2008, Aaron Henry could not wait to get back on the field during spring camp. Now, with a healthy 15-practice spring behind him, Henry is looking to continue to prepare himself to get back on the field in 2009.
"He's looking good," Cooks said. "He's still working himself into shape, and not so much condition wise, but mentally with that knee. Coming off an ACL, that's a big deal. So he's still processing that. You can see him sometimes being hesitant planting, or running at certain angles or making sure he's not getting caught up in piles.
"You just want to see a daily mental improvement. See him each day getting over that hump."
Following Monday's first practice, UW head coach Bret Bielema noted that Henry might be a guy, along with Garrett Graham, that might be limited during certain parts of practice, at least early in camp. Cooks, however, did not seem to think limiting Henry would do much good.
"We're not," Cooks said. "The thing I told him is that I want him to do everything that everyone else does. I think that's part of the process of making sure that mentally he gets over it. If you set him out and kind of make him conscious of things, that kind of sets him back.
"I want him full speed ahead."
Depth should be a strong suit:
The infamous spring camp of 2008, where the defense saw injuries pile up, is starting to reap some benefits a year and a half later. During the time when multiple key players were injured, the young players in the secondary had a great chance to get reps. And now, with camp underway, that secondary depth is beginning to take shape.
"This is the deepest that I've been since I've been here," Cooks said. "But having said that, those guys still got to go out and play like that. I think we're the most experienced unit on the defense anyway, at safety and at corner, but now you hope those guys don't take that for granted. Go out there and use your abilities and experience they have each game."
At this point, it seems Niles Brinkley is in the lead to opposite Henry as a starting corner. And behind them, Devin Smith, Antonio Fenelus and Cromartie should be ready and willing to enter the equation.
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