Young Wisconsin secondary continues to improve

Joe Robbins

The Badgers' defensive backs have had plenty of ups and downs this season, and they hope to keep getting better during the second half of the year.

MADISON -- The Wisconsin secondary doesn't use youth as an excuse.

It's something that remains constant whenever head coach Gary Andersen talks about the back end of the Badgers' defense. Any mistake, blown coverage or missed tackle may be at least partly a result of inexperience, but that doesn't mean those plays are acceptable.

Especially now, heading into the home stretch of the regular season, when the players who entered fall camp ripe for their first significant on-field action have now endured seven games of trials and learning experiences.

"As a group, I think we can just be faster, be more physical, read our keys better. I think that'll get us farther than we've ever imagined." -Michael Caputo

"We came in a very inexperienced group except for (safety Dezmen Southward), and just playing these past couple games and seeing different offenses, it's really helped us to grow up a little bit in the back end," sophomore safety Michael Caputo said. "As a group, I think we can just be faster, be more physical, read our keys better.

"I think that'll get us farther than we've ever imagined."

That's easier said than done, but Wisconsin's secondary has likely exceeded most fan expectations for the first half of the year. The Badgers have given up more big plays than they would have liked, but they currently rank 16th nationally in passing defense, giving up just 197.4 yards per game.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the secondary's biggest issues have come on play-action and down-and-distances that aren't obvious passing scenarios, and the numbers back that up.

Wisconsin has given up the fourth-fewest passing yards in the country on third downs of 10-plus yards and ranks eighth in opponent passer rating in those same situations. When they know a pass is on the way, the Badgers haven't had problems.

"Mixed downs, misdirection, downfield shots -- those are the things we've been working on," Aranda said. "They've been working hard at it. Credit [safeties] coach [Bill] Busch and [cornerbacks] coach [Ben] Strickland. They've really kind of taken them to task, and I'm excited to see what comes of it come Saturday because we're definitely going to get it. That's a big part of what [Iowa] does."

The Hawkeyes' downhill, physical running game often puts them in manageable third-down distances, a big reason why Iowa's 49.18 third-down percentage rate ranks 19th in the country.

It will be a worthy test for a Badger secondary that continues to round into form as the season progresses.

Wisconsin has found many serviceable defensive backs on its roster that weren't expected to contribute right away, including true freshman cornerback Jakarrie Washington and quarterback-turned-safety Tanner McEvoy. That translates into a pleasantly surprising amount of depth, but also perhaps a more severe learning curve and a tougher challenge mentally.

"You're not going to make every play back there," Andersen said. "When you do give up a play, you've got to move on to the next play and be prepared. We've got players that are eager and excited. We know that it's a little bit of an issue for us, and we continue to work."

Much of the reason the Badgers have been able to put up a respectable fight against opposing passing attacks falls back to Southward, the fifth-year senior safety who has helped guide the inexperienced group through the season.

Many of Wisconsin's defensive backs have noted how much they've learned from Southward, everything from film study to positioning on the field.

"He helps us to, I wouldn't say cheat the game, but just kind of get that little bit of edge so that we can be the best," Caputo said.

Aranda noted that most of the team's safeties are down-in-the-box type of players. He said Southward fits that mold as well -- particularly when he's blitzing -- but that the Badgers have sacrificed that because they desperately need him in coverage.

Aranda said he's started to work Southward into more blitz packages, but his coverage skills have improved dramatically.

"He's improved so much in that area, playing deep safety, playing the post, playing the deep half," Aranda said. "I thank him for that because I know he likes to be up and doing things there.

"He's really held us together. When we've had different moving parts, he's kind of been the glue we can depend on and count on. He's been a big part of whatever success we've had."

The Wisconsin secondary still has a long way to go. The Badgers say there's plenty of room left for improvement, and nearly the entire group will return next season.

But for all the tireless work of teaching the defensive backs how to better their technique and defend different varieties of offensive philosophies, the coaching staff believes it's getting the most out of the players.

"We're not close to being where we need to be," Busch said. "The thing that always stands out -- make sure we're always physical and we're tackling and our effort's great, which we've had. That's the part that you stress the most because we can control all those things."

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