For much of careers at Wisconsin, safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward were in stiff competition for playing time. With Aaron Henry and Jay Valai locking down the starting spots in 2010, the Johnson and Southward fought for playing time in backup roles and on special teams.
After Valai departed following the season, they were in competition once again, this time for the right to take over a starting spot, last spring camp and during fall. Each safety ended up playing a significant amount of snaps last season, with Johnson making 12 starts and Southward making three.
Now, it appears each will take on a starting role as the team concludes spring camp and moves towards the regular season. Bret Bielema praised the duo during his meeting with the media Monday, saying they had a chance to be "the best safety combination since [he's] been here."
After practice Thursday, both players said their heated but friendly battle for playing time over the couple of years played a significant role in their development.
"I think from all the competition we’ve had, I kind of learned a lot about him, he’s learned a lot about me as far as how we come out, how we approach. And now we’re going to play. That competition those last couple years was huge for us. We were really going at it and we made each other so much better," Southward said.
Still, the duo has played very little football together after spending the majority of their time on the field splitting reps at strong safety last season. Now, Southward, a redshirt junior, has moved over to free safety and Johnson, a redshirt senior, is entrenched on the strong side.
Johnson downplayed his coach's praise, saying he and Southward still have a lot of work to do to get where they need to be.
"Potential is one thing, but actually reaching that potential is another thing. Us having the potential to be the best duo, or whatever he said, doesn’t mean anything or help us win any games. i think each individual is trying to be the best at our position that we can be. We actually have to reach that potential for it to mean anything," Johnson said.
Johnson admitted the secondary lacked consistency at times last year. The Badgers gave up several big plays over the course of the season, including two final-minute heaves that cost Wisconsin wins against Michigan State and Ohio State. As a senior, Johnson says he's tried to improve his consistency and communication skills so everyone on the defense is on the same page and knows what to expect from him.
Co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Chris Ash said the chemistry the duo developed while competing during their careers, along with their athletic skills, gives them a chance to fulfill their potential and live up to Bielema's praise.
"If they keep progressing they both have the ability to do that. Now, whether it actually happens, time will tell," Ash said. "But I like where they’re at right now. Those guys are really feeding off each other, kind of like what Borland and Taylor did last year at the linebacker position. I’m hoping that Dez and Shelton can be those type of those guys at the safety position. Not necessarily making that many plays and leading the nation in tackles, but being in the right spots, being the generals of the field and making sure that everybody’s on the same page."