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August 6, 2011

Fall outlook: Secondary

MADISON - As far as the secondary is concerned on the Wisconsin football squad, there's Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus, Devin Smith and a whole squadron of unknowns.

So, knowing that only three of the four starting spots are secure, at least when talking about the base package, one can expect plenty of position battles at the remaining spots. Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward will be engaged in a long battle, one that will likely not be decided until very late in fall camp.

By the time spring camp was finished, it seemed as though Southward had passed Johnson on the depth chart, as evidenced by the amount of reps the South Floridian received late in camp. Now, as fall camp is underway, that's a positional battle to watch.

"That's a great one," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following day one of fall camp.

Otherwise, there seems to be an opportunity for players such as Marcus Cromartie and Peniel Jean to compete for a role in the regular nickel and dime rotation.

But that's where the depth stops and where young players will have to prove themselves.

The burning question:

Is this the year that Cromartie puts it all together?

Each year it seems as though Cromartie - now a junior - takes one step closer to becoming a contributor. He's always had the athletic ability. So much so that he might be labeled as the secondary's most natural ball hawk. But, at least when you look at the course of his career, it's always one thing or another that prevents the athletic corner from finding himself involved with the regular rotation.

He's too inconsistent, he doesn't understand the defensive principles and he makes too many mental mistakes. Simply put, he hasn't taken that next step. But if spring camp was any indication, it seems as though he's getting closer to making that breakthrough.

Bielema made it clear during spring camp that Cromartie had taken a different approach to spring ball, one that was more focused than any he was a part of in the past. That's encouraging simply because it seems like he flipped a switch that was in need of switching.

He has all the talent to be a contributor. He' just got to put it all together. Maybe that will happen now that he's entering his fourth year in the program.

On the rise:

Dezmen Southward

From a sheer athletic standpoint, Southward is probably the most physically gifted player on the entire roster. During the Big Ten Meetings last week in Chicago, Aaron Henry spent some time telling a story about Southward and his athleticism. According to the fifth year senior, Southward calmly stepped up to a box that stands 50-plus inches tall and jumped on top of it. No questions asked. No hesitation.

"The sky is truly the limit for this kid," Henry said. "Not just at this level, but also the next."

Having only played one year of prep football at lauded St. Thomas Aquinas, UW head coach Bret Bielema knew Southward would be a bit of a project and that he would have to be patient with him.

Now, as the sophomore prepares to enter his third year in the program, it seems as though he's got a great opportunity to earn a spot as the starting strong safety alongside Henry.

"It's not any secret that Dez is freakishly athletic," Henry said last spring. "You've really got to see him to see how athletic he is."

Stock falling:

Shelton Johnson

And that is not meant as a bash on Johnson at all. He's one of the smartest players on the roster and has such sound fundamentals that it's tough to categorize him in this light. But, the sheer fact that he seemed to be the incumbent at the position, only to leave the door open for Southward to jump in, has his stock falling just a tad.

He may very well wind up winning the starting spot at strong safety, but at least at the beginning of camp, he will need to prove himself and assert himself as the man to beat at the position.

The most interesting man:

Peniel Jean

Yeah he's a redshirt freshman, yeah he doesn't have any game experience and yeah, he's probably going to play a role in the secondary this season. It seems as though the talent is there for that to happen.

And because the depth isn't exactly strong at the corner position, he will have an opportunity to secure a role in the two-deep at that position.

Key competition

The battle for the starting strong safety spot?

Johnson is fundamentally sound. Southward is freakishly athletic. Johnson is fast. Southward might be a bit faster. Johnson is good in coverage. Southward needs to work on that. It's going to be a back and forth melee for the better part of August before this one gets figured out.

"Both of them can play football extremely well," Henry said. "It's a battle going on out there, but you've got to like it. You've got to love that kind of battle because you don't want a position that's up in the air to be given to you. So these guys are definitely competing out there and both of them are doing a really, really good job. I'm communicating with them on every play and talking with them on every play.

"Whoever is back there, whether it's Shelton or Dez, it's going to have to be a communication thing."

Keep an eye on:

Michael Trotter

When he was healthy, Trotter was definitely noticeable at the back end of the secondary during spring camp. He's young, granted, but he has a boatload of potential. He may not contribute much this year, other than on special teams, but by the time his career is all said and done, he'll be a name most people know. Don't be surprised if he has a strong fall camp.

The corners:

Fenelus is an All-Big Ten caliber talent. He's the model of consistency that coach Chris Ash preaches. He's as close to a shut down corner that the Badgers have seen since the days of Jack Ikegwuonu. Expect a huge senior year from him.

Devin Smith, who like Fenelus has plenty of experience, will be back in the starting, down-by-down corner position. He had a strong spring, capped by an interception in the spring game, and looked to be ready to return to the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see if he can stay consistent throughout the entirety of fall camp and the entirety of a long regular season.



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