MADISON - The Wisconsin football team revealed its four newly elected captains for the 2011 season shortly after Sunday's Family Fun Day at Camp Randall Stadium. The four leaders have one thing in common: they are all seniors.
But the two most high-profile members of the group achieved this milestone in very different ways.
Senior free safety Aaron Henry saw his first snaps as a Badger way back in 2007. As a true freshman playing cornerback, Henry wasted no time turning heads, returning an interception 26 yards in the season opener against Washington State and then sacking Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen twice in a 17-13 win.
Since then, Henry has been through a lot.
He had knee surgery just before the start of the 2008 season and ended up taking a redshirt that year. Upon returning to the field in 2009, Henry struggled to regain his form, starting just three games.
The coaching staff then asked him to try the free safety position prior to last season. Despite learning a new role, Henry made a big impact in 2010, earning second-team all-Big Ten honors from the coaches, recording 57 tackles and returning two interceptions for touchdowns.
Henry also developed into a leader along the Badgers' journey to the Rose Bowl. He has always been one of the most articulate and polite players on the team and now, in his final year wearing a Wisconsin uniform, he hopes to lead UW to another Big Ten title.
"It's definitely a culmination," Henry said after Monday's practice. "It's truly a blessing, it's an honor. I'm thrilled about it. I just think it's my duty to go out there and lead my teammates."
Senior quarterback Russell Wilson, on the other hand, has not even been on campus for two months, yet he has already impressed his new teammates enough to be voted a captain.
"I'm definitely excited about it," Wilson said. "It's a great opportunity. I've just got to keep working the best I can to make sure that every single day I put my best effort forward."
Every player and coach I have talked with about Wilson has spoken of him in glowing terms. They are wowed by his poise, leadership, intelligence and undeniable athletic ability.
Wilson is equally pleased with his new football family.
"I'm blessed, more than anything," Wilson said. "I'm excited to be a part of this team, whether I am captain or not. I was still going to lead, even if I wasn't captain. My goal is always to be a leader on the team, on and off the field."
Wilson has handled a whirlwind of a transition with a steady demeanor and positive attitude. The vote for captain clearly indicates that he has developed good chemistry with the rest of the players in Wisconsin's locker room, not an easy task considering how new he is.
"I think that we've really gotten to know each other," Wilson said. "The whole team. I've really gotten to know the defensive players, the offensive players, some special teams guys, and they've really gotten to know me. I'm pretty serious on the football field, but I try and have fun, too, and just enjoy the game."
In addition to fitting in with a new group of teammates, mastering Wisconsin's pro-style offense in a few short weeks has been another challenge for Wilson. But he says he is confident in his knowledge of the playbook.
"I definitely think I'm ready," Wilson said. "I'm definitely prepared to play. I'm excited about it, the same as the rest of the guys. We're really working hard every single day. The next ten days are really important for us to clean up some things here and there."
Despite taking different paths to the captaincy, Wilson and Henry do share something in common that is very important to both of them - their faith.
"I definitely think we kind of hit it off," Henry said of Wilson and himself. "We kind of knew that both of us were believers and it's just a common ground between us. Our faith was just something that brought us even closer. I think when you can bond with a guy outside of the sport, you can truly get to know him personally."
They also share a mutual respect.
"He's a stand-up guy, on and off the field," Henry said of Wilson. "That's just the kind of person he is. Whether he was here for a day, whether he was here for a year, I think guys probably would have had those same votes in mind when they were voting for him [for captain]. Some guys you can just tell."
Few surprises on depth chart
The Badgers released their updated depth chart following Monday's practice and it looks about the way we expected.
The biggest surprise is that sophomore walk-on Ethan Hemer is listed as one of the starting defensive tackles. Hemer displaced former starter Jordan Kohout, also a sophomore, and is now in line to start alongside senior captain Patrick Butrym.
It looks like the Badgers will rotate multiple linemen this season, especially at defensive tackle, where Kohout and sophomore Beau Allen are experienced and capable.
Josh Oglesby is listed as the starting right tackle. Despite several knee surgeries, he has shown enough to hold off talented - and massive - freshman Rob Havenstein.
Junior Shelton Johnson has a grip on the strong safety spot, though it's unclear how tight it is. Sophomore Dezmen Southward is the backup at the position vacated by three-year starter Jay Valai.
Senior Devin Smith and junior Marcus Cromartie are listed as co-starters at the cornerback spot opposite Antonio Fenelus. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash told me Cromartie has been the team's best defensive back throughout fall camp. Smith has much more experience, but it's likely Cromartie will be on the field in nickel packages.
Despite three years of starting experience, senior kicker Philip Welch has been pushed by freshman Kyle French. Welch has missed time due to injury and French has seized the opportunity. The two are listed as co-starters.
Wisconsin continues to flaunt an embarrassment of riches at running back. Junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White are listed as co-starters, while redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis and true freshman Melvin Gordon are co-backups.
Ball, for one, thinks it's great to have a tailback unit that legitimately goes four deep.
"If I'm in and I'm getting a little tired, a little winded here and there, I know that I can tap my helmet and come out," Ball said. "I know that James (White) will go in and do just as well or even better, and vice versa with him. It's good that we have depth. We all work hard and we're all going to make sure that when our number is called, we're going to get the job done."
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!