Wisconsin spring football: Despite position changes, Badgers' defense impresses

Luke Mueller

The Badgers returned to practice after a day off, showcasing a particularly strong effort from the defense.

Watching Wisconsin's practice Thursday, you would have sworn your eyes were deceiving you. The defense that showed up was a much more energetic, focused group than the unit that took the field Tuesday -- with some notable changes.

The defense as a whole looked to be in sync, not allowing any big plays during the portion of practice open to the media. The largest play of the afternoon was a 15-yard scramble by D.J. Gillins against the second-team defense. The linebackers were quick to fill the gaps and stop the run, while the secondary broke quick to the ball on the few passes thrown during practice.

The first-team linebackers consisted of Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert at the outside positions and the Trotter brothers (Marcus and Mike) on the two inside positions. Noticeably absent was Derek Landisch, who was not at practice today.

Mike Caputo returns to safety permanently

Arguably the biggest revelation of the day was found in the secondary, and Mike Caputo's return to safety. He and Leo Musso took first-team reps, while Austin Hudson and Peniel Jean handled the second-team duties. Safeties coach Bill Busch raved about Caputo, who moved back from from field-side linebacker, where he was a starter earlier in spring.

"Mike [Caputo] is back with me," Busch said. "He will be a starter at the safety spot. Mike will be a leader, clearly. He does it on the field with his actions. He also does it verbally and in everything he does. He is definitely our leader."

Austin Hudson drawing early raves

Four different safeties took reps during practice. Busch said that he was excited to give those four the opportunity to get so much experience, especially because of the inexperience at the position aside from Caputo. He went on to give a rundown of each player at the safety position who played there Thursday. Peniel Jean, for starters, recently made the move from corner to safety.

"We moved [Jean] to safety and he is doing a really nice job," Busch said. "Austin Hudson I am really impressed with. He is a true freshman, so I am reserved until the bullets start flying."

Busch went on to say that a lack of experience will be the biggest challenge for the safeties this season, but based on the early spring results, he isn't worried.

"We have a lot of guys with little gaming experience," Busch said. "I don't question their toughness or willingness."

Busch has liked what he has seen from Leo Musso, who along with Caputo is projected to start at the position.

"Muss' has a great camp so far," Busch said. "Leo has played a little bit back there. He has played in games, but the Ohio State game is really the only game that was on the line, so he hasn't played much."

Finally, Busch had nothing but good things to say about early enrollee Austin Hudson and his mindset. He also reassured that although Hudson is listed on the roster as a defensive back and not specifically a safety, Hudson will begin at safety.

"The biggest thing he's got going for him is that he is here. Other guys his age are getting ready for prom and he is here, so that's good. He is extremely football smart with he has great length and runs well. His upside is huge. Right now I am very very excited about him."

Safety unit rolls with the punches

The safety position has seen plenty of changes over the last year. Tanner McEvoy moved from quarterback to safety part way through last season, while Caputo moved to linebacker. This offseason, A.J. Jordan moved from wide receiver to safety, Vonte Jackson moved from running back to the position and Peniel Jean went to safety after a stint at cornerback.

"We went through a lot of changes last year," Busch said. "We had a lot of guys last year that had not played. It becomes real simple once you figure out what the level is of how hard they compete and how tough they are, then you can coach and get them ready.

"That is something all these guys have and that jumps out to me. Some parts [of the changing] are kind of fun, too. You get to see what you can do as a coach and doing different things with the group."

Busch went on to say that the one thing he is stressing to the group with the spring game looming April 12 is lowering the mental errors and stopping the big plays that are caused by what he calls a "mental bust." He detailed his wish to develop depth at the position and views the lack of experience within the group as promise for the future.

Despite injuries, Vonte Jackson looks to find his calling at safety

Vonte Jackson was a highly-touted high school running back out of Kenosha, Wis., but after tearing his ACL for the third time in 22 months last summer, UW's coaches saw him as a good fit at safety. Jackson said Busch approached him when he came on campus about making the position change, but at first he wanted to stay at running back.
"It's different," Jackson said of the switch. "You have to learn a lot of new things. You are on the opposite side of the ball now. Learning the playbook has been the biggest challenge because you can't just know what your assignment is, you have to know what everyone else's assignment is. That can really change the play. On defense, the play can change because of all of the motion the offense does."

Jackson admitted that everything is still moving very fast for him right now, but he's sure that the game will slow down for him soon. He believes he is a good fit at safety, because Busch had brought it up to him early in his career and the possibility has been on his mind ever since.

"I wasn't upset or anything, I just felt it was an opportunity to get out here. Injury played into the move a little bit. I will be able to deliver the hits instead of taking them awkwardly."

"I can cover tight ends and I have good speed. Everyone is friends in the film room. I have really worked with Nate [Hammon]. We get together and go over film."

Jackson finished our interview by saying he just has to find a way to stay healthy. He believes the cuts he'll make at safety are similar to those he made at running back. Switching sides of the ball didn't seem to faze him, either.

"Football is still a physical game. It only took me about a day or two to think about how I needed to move, but then once I started getting comfortable (at safety), it just became easier."

With injuries mounting, A.J. Jordan proves versatile

A.J. Jordan has been one of the most interesting stories of spring practice. The first three years Jordan spent in Madison were dedicated to playing wide receiver, until he was approached about playing cornerback in the Capitol One Bowl in January. Jordan has yet again moved positions, this time to safety.

With injuries hampering the wide receivers, Jordan has proven a jack-of-all-trades, playing both sides of the ball in this week's practices. Tuesday, Jordan moved well, covering large areas of the field at his new position with the first-team defense. Thursday, the utilityman went back to his original position at wide receiver.

Busch did say he expects to have Jordan back with the safeties once the wide receivers get healthy. Jordan later detailed his feelings toward all of the jumping around and what he expects on the defensive side of the ball.

"It's been cool, I have played wide receiver before so I have an idea of the plays and concepts, but I am just trying to help the offense out," Jordan said. "They are short on numbers right now, so they have me feeling in. Wherever I fit best, that is where I will be."

"I am so used to moving forward as a wide receiver. Backpedaling and having them come at me has been one of the biggest adjustments for me, but I think I have adapted pretty quick."

Jordan added that his experience on the other side of the ball should prove valuable in the new role.

"You can kind of tell. Sometimes, splits give it away. Other times, it's the way [receivers] come off the ball or their speed, different keys like that can help out on this side of the ball."

Even with Caputo moving back to safety, too, Jordan's approach has been noticeable.

"The mentality on defense has to be a little different. ... Backpedaling is something I wasn't too familiar with. I have spent a lot of time trying to perfect the little things. Staying long, not kicking my legs up too high are all things I worked on. I have worked a lot with the corners on technique, all different reads and how to come down field.

Notes:

-- Practice from an offensive standpoint was very run-oriented and featured 11-on-11 drills.

-- Jordan Fredrick was removed from practice on Tuesday and returned with a sling on his arm. At today's practice he did not participate and still was wearing the sling.

-- Three quarterbacks took reps during the open portion of practice. McEvoy and Joel Stave each took a similar amount of reps with the first team.

-- D.J. Gillins practiced exclusively with the second team. He took 15 snaps in the open period, going 4-of-6. He also had two impressive scrambles, one for 20 yards and the other for 10. He was sacked once and almost intercepted once, and his completions were quick-hitting passes in the 5-to-10-yard range. He looked far less composed compared to the other quarterbacks.

-- McEvoy took 16 snaps. He was 4-of-7 and was hurried twice. He looked extremely composed under pressure, but did struggle with an exchange from freshman center Michael Dieter. An interesting facet was a designed quarterback sweep where McEvoy scampered for about 13 yards.

-- Stave took 12 snaps, and went 2-of-4, a much slimmer workload than the 13 passes he attempted on Tuesday. One of Stave's completions was a badly-overthrown designed screen to Austin Traylor on his only downfield pass.

-- As mentioned, the defense looked much better in practice. Dare Ogunbowale nearly intercepted a tipped screen pass from Gillins. Leon Jacobs recorded a sack on Gillins.

-- Rob Wheelwright, Reggie Love, Alex Erickson and Connor Cummins did not practice, but were on the Juggs machine.

-- Chasen Andersen made an appearance at middle linebacker during practice.

-- Jared Abbrederis, Beau Allen and James White were all in attendance.

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