Despite breakdowns in a few games last season, most Badger fans would probably tell you 2011 was a successful year for the Wisconsin defense. Even with the loss of one of the best defensive players Wisconsin has had in recent memory in J.J. Watt, the Badgers still finished third in the Big Ten and 15th nationally in total defense.
Still, the Badgers did have plenty of problems against the better offenses they faced in 2011, particularly in the secondary, which gave up back-breaking long pass plays against Ohio State and Michigan State, among others. For the 2012 season, all four projected starters in the Wisconsin secondary have starting experience, something secondary coach Ben Strickland is hoping will eliminate those breakdowns.
"They take ownership in the group. As the group goes, they go," Strickland said after Wisconsin's practice Monday. "The older guys take that accountability factor into it because they’ve been around, they understand what it takes to win and they’re trying to portray that to some of the young guys as well."
The Badgers lost free safety Aaron Henry to graduation, but they return senior Shelton Johnson and junior Dezmen Southward, who both got significant playing time while platooning at the other strong safety last season. It looks like Johnson will continue to start at strong safety while the more athletic Southward will slide into Henry's old role.
Strickland identified both of his projected starting safeties as leaders of the unit, but in different ways.
"Shelton Johnson is a great leader by example. When he needs to be vocal he’s vocal and think that carries a lot of weight. When there’s a guy that’s not saying a lot, when he is saying something, guys listen," Strickland said. "Dezmen Southward is a guy that’s going to be a junior next year, but a guy that we’re going to lean on to be a leader. He’s done a tremendous job backing up what he’s saying."
The Badgers projected starting corners also have plenty of in-game experience. Devin Smith began the 2011 season as the starter alongside the now-graduated Antonio Fenelus before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Oregon State Sept. 10.
This gave Marcus Cromartie a chance to step into a starting role, which he held down for the remainder of the season. Smith is still nursing his foot injury, but both players will be back and are expected to start in the fall.
Strickland also had high praise for redshirt freshman Darius Hillary, who looks like a candidate to challenge Peniel Jean for playing time in Wisconsin's nickel and dime packages. Strickland said Hillary has the attitude and versatility needed to earn playing time, even at such a young age.
"A guy that I’ll point out, just because of his approach every day is Darius Hillary. He’s a guy that’s pretty versatile, could play corner or safety position because of his athletic ability, a guy that whatever role he’s put into he’s going to flourish in because it’s important to him," Strickland said. "Those younger guys are always going to make mistakes, but he’s done a nice job of learning from those mistakes and applying it to the very next play."