April 29, 2009

Post spring camp: Secondary

MADISON, Wis. - If there was one underlying benefit of an injury plagued spring ball in 2008, it was the depth certain positions gained. With the departure of Jack Ikegwuonu and injuries to both Allen Langford and Aaron Henry, it was the young members of the secondary's chance to shine.

In 2009, with last spring serving as the backdrop, the depth in the entire secondary is as deep as it has been in head coach Bret Bielema's tenure.

"I've got seven guys that have started at some point back there," UW secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "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."

For Henry, the wait was a long overdue. After suffering a torn ACL during bowl prep his first year on campus, Henry seemed poised to return for his sophomore season. But just shortly into fall camp, inflammation of his knee led to another surgery that led to a redshirt season.

Now, with spring in the books, Henry was obviously ready to get back on the field and make a difference. He is at, or at the very least, near the top of the cornerback rotation and is one of the most physical specimen's on the entire unit.

Throughout the 15 allotted practices, Henry continually did battle with Nick Toon, easily UW's biggest receiving threat. While each of the players had their moments over the other, the competition between the two will surely translate onto the field next fall.

"I always try to put as much pressure on myself as I can," Henry said early in camp. "If it's up to me like I'm going to lose the position, everyday I come into practice whether I'm a starter, whether I'm the fourth string, I just try to go out there and dominate the position."

Henry will likely open camp as the No. 1 corner and thus match up against the opponents top receiving threat.

Joining Henry in the UW secondary will be several other young players at the corner spot.

Niles Brinkley, who saw regular action a season ago in Henry's absence, was back and performing at a high level throughout spring ball. Brinkley has solid speed and relies more on that than he does from jamming at the line.

Behind Brinkley, it seemed as though Marcus Cromartie shot up the depth chart during spring ball and will likely factor into the rotation in the fall. He seems to have a natural knack for the ball. He has great closing speed and isn't afraid to go out and make a tackle. He also has open field speed that was seen during the spring game as he ran from the far side of the field to drag down the speedy Eirk Smith who was sprinting down the sideline.

"What it is about me is I just got to stay consistent," Cromartie said at the end of camp. "I think that's a huge part of being a DB and not letting one good play get to you and not letting one bad play get to you, just keep on playing.

"I just work on my technique and I feel I'll do well this fall."

With Mario Goins in academic limbo, it seems Cromartie has secured a spot as Brinkley's backup. Shortly behind Cromartie is Otis Merrill who also flashed some skills this spring, although not quite at the same level as Cromartie.

At the safety position, one of the better moments of the spring came after the spring game when Bielema announced one of the extra scholarships would go to former walk-on Chris Maragos.

"I was flooded with a lot of different emotions," Maragos said following the spring game. "I was thinking back to high school when I was down there working out and my sophomore year when nobody else was just trying to work for a scholarship to Wisconsin. Then, that not happening out of high school and then thinking back to Western Michigan and all the trials, redshirting, then coming here and switching out and switching positions….It's just a great feeling. It's just great."

For Badger fans, it should come as great news too, because the scholarship offer has shown that the UW coaches feel Maragos is capable at playing at this level. Throughout spring, he was ahead of Shane Carter for the starting spot, and looks to have a sizeable edge going into the fall.

Carter, however, rebounded from his bowl game suspension and had a great spring. Most importantly, it seemed Carter was making an effort to become more physical throughout spring ball.

"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," Cooks said. "That he can make the checks and line up the right way and be a leader back there in the secondary."

At the other safety position, Aubrey Pleasant made a bid to reclaim his starting spot with a solid spring season. Although Jay Valai, last season's starter, was nursing an injury that kept him out early in spring ball, it seems Pleasant may have kept this battle open through the fall.

Finally, one of the more intriguing prospects in the UW secondary was Shelton Johnson. He received a bevy of reps throughout spring, particularly when Valai was out with an injury.

"He's a kid that hadn't quite figured it all out yet as far as our defense," Cooks said. "But he's a great open field tackler. He's a smart player, he's jut one of those guys that's always around the ball."

Projected depth chart:

Left Cornerback:

-Aaron Henry, SO.
-Antonio Fenelus, SO.
OR
-Devin Smith, SO.

Right Cornerback:

-Niles Brinkley, JR.
-Marcus Cromartie, FR.
-Otis Merrill, SO.

Strong Safety:

-Jay Valai, JR.
OR
-Aubrey Pleasant, SR.
-Kevin Claxton, SO.
-Adam Hampton, SO.

Free Safety:

-Chris Maragos, SR.
-Shane Carter, SR.
-Shelton Johnson, FR.

Other Defensive Backs:

-William Hartman, SR.
-Chukwuma Offor, SO.
-Andrew Lukasko, SO.
-Coddye Ring-Noonan, FR.

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