July 31, 2009

Fall Outlook: Safeties

With Wisconsin's fall camp set to begin in 10 days, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at the individual position groups. Today, our continuing series focuses on the safeties.

With a new scholarship player in Chris Maragos and a seasoned junior in Jay Valai the position is gearing up to be one of the more experienced units of the team. Still, less than stellar play a season ago has led to the need of a productive fall camp.

Departing Starters: None
Returning Starters: Valai and Maragos
Top Reserves: Shane Carter, Aubrey Pleasant, Kevin Claxton and Shelton Johnson

Post-Spring Depth Chart:

Strong Safety:

Jr. Jay Valai (5-9, 200)
Sr. Aubrey Pleasant (6-1, 196)
So. Kevin Claxton (6-2, 208)

Free Safety:

Sr. Chris Maragos (6-0, 198)
Sr. Shane Carter (6-2, 202)
R-Fr. Shelton Johnson (6-0, 181)

Overview: Two seasons ago it was Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant's position to lose. Unfortunately for them, they did. After inconsistent play throughout 2007, shoddy tackling and blown assignments, both Carter and Pleasant were taken from the starting position in favor of Maragos and Valai. Then, with two new starters in the secondary a season ago, the tackling was improved a bit, but still too many big plays were given up for the coaching staff to be happy.

Thus the majority of spring camp was focused on getting back to the fundamentals and doing things right. And by the end of it, Carter seemed to be playing with a ton of confidence, Pleasant seemed more focused and Valai and Maragos continued to progress.

"We feel good," UW secondary coach Kerry Cooks said last March. "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."

The Pro: Carter. Though inconsistencies have marred his UW career to this point, the spring season showcased a new and more focused safety entering his senior year. After starting as a sophomore, Carter was demoted to nickel packages a year ago, and finished the year in trouble due to off-field issues. But now, entering fall camp, Carter is focused on making the most of his final year on campus.

"(I'm) just not taking anything for granted and just be thankful for the opportunity to play at a university like Wisconsin," Carter said last spring. "You know, just try to make my senior year my best year."

Carter is athletically gifted and comes from a long-standing football family. As a sophomore, he made noise by leading the Big Ten with seven interceptions. But his junior year was not as pretty as his aggressive, ball hawking style came back to bite him in the tackling and coverage assignments.

One of the biggest knacks on Carter was his lack of physicality when approaching a tackle. During spring ball, it was evident that he was more focused on completing the tackle and preventing big plays.

"I think that Shane realized that he had some up and down, inconsistent habits," Cooks said last spring. "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 the line up the right way and be a leader back there in the secondary."

The Rising Star: Maragos. Though he is entering his senior season, Maragos is riding high and elevating his profile on the Badger defense. After head coach Bret Bielema awarded him a scholarship, Maragos will enter his final fall camp as a Badger as not only the starter, but also one of the 85 scholarship players on the roster. That simple fact alone has him playing with plenty of confidence.

"I'm not really looking to learn my plays or anything like that," Maragos said at the beginning of spring ball. "It's more like fine-tuning stuff. Just having the confidence and just going out there playing loose now. I don't have to worry about where I need to be. It's more about how I'm going to execute."

The Rookie: Johnson. As athletic as Johnson, a redshirt freshman out of Texas is, it was apparent during the spring that he has the potential to contribute in the secondary this season. Though, not having played in an actual game to this point, his game still needs to be shored up.

"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," Cooks said. "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."

The Veterans: Both Valai and Pleasant have been around the program for quite some time. And at the beginning of spring camp, UW coaches switched things up a bit when they decided not to label the safety positions and just had the players focus on the fundamentals of the position rather than focus on the assignments that either free or strong encompassed.

Last season, Valai established himself as one of the Big Ten's hardest hitters, but often got caught going for the big hit instead of the sure tackle. Meanwhile, Pleasant seemed uncomfortable in coverage several times. So, when all was said and done in spring ball, both Valai and Pleasant seemed to benefit from the attention to detail.

"If you're not getting good technically, you're going to get caught eventually," Valai told reporters last spring. "Technique takes you to the next level. A lot of the guys in the NFL, from what I've heard from different NFL people or players I've talked to, they said some players in the NFL aren't the best athletes. They are just great technique players, so that takes you game to the next level really."

While also working on his technique, Pleasant went through spring ball and eventually found himself working with the No. 1 unit when Valai was nursing an injury. But when Valai returned to practice and with him being fully healthy now entering fall, Pleasant will likely be back in the nickel package.

"To be honest with you, I really don't pay that much attention to it," Pleasant said. "I just go out there an play my game. Obviously, to be good at this level, when you're out there no matter who the guys you're playing with, you have to play the same. So, it just gives me an opportunity to go out there and be able to make plays."




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