Burning questions for Wisconsin football in 2013: What's going to happen in the secondary?

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

The Badgers will carry an incredibly young secondary into the fall. Can they win with Dezmen Southward at the helm?

With 18 defensive backs on the fall roster, the 2013 Wisconsin secondary will feature only two players who have ever started a game of college football. One of those players is the ultra-athletic Dezmen Southward, the only returning starter from a year ago.

A consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2012, Southward is the lone bright spot. Instinctual and fast as lightning, Southward played a major role from his safety position as a run stopper last year, recording eight tackles for a loss. Southward has also taken steps to further showcase his speed, electing to help out the UW track team this past season in the 100-yard dash when the team lost star heptathlete Japheth Cato.

It doesn’t seem too flawed of a guess to think Southward will end up a captain this season, which will be key in a group replacing three starters. When senior starting safety Shelton Johnson went down with a broken arm last season, Southward stepped up and seemed more than happy to be the leader among the group and excelled in doing so. Besides Southward, only safety Michael Trotter returns with any starting experience, which he gained over three starts filling in for Johnson. Trotter isn’t promised a spot, however, as JuCo signee Donnell Vercher will join the Badgers in fall camp. One of the first recruits landed in the Gary Andersen era at Wisconsin, Vercher’s experience will give him a chance to catapult to the spot next to Southward.

More burning questions: QBs & No. 2 WR OL & red zone Pass rush

If you’re a fan, and especially if you’re my colleague Nathan Palm, you can take solace in knowing the days of the Wisconsin cornerback playing a 5-yard cushion on receivers is all but over. Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda favor press-man coverage, which should help make the Badgers less vulnerable to the bubble screen or short dump-off they were burned by the past several years under Bret Bielema.

In regard to the cornerback position, two of these three players will win starting spots in the fall: Darius Hillary, Sojourn Shelton and Peniel Jean. Shelton's decision to enroll early paid off, as the four-star rated recruit made notable progress in the spring and capped it off with a strong performance in the spring game.

Both Hillary and Jean looked so-so last fall in their respective nickel back positions and didn’t really impress during the spring game. Also, keep your eyes on Reggie Mitchell, who made the switch to safety from cornerback this season.

If I had to guess who will be the starting cornerbacks, I’d go with Hillary and Shelton. Jean is solid, but I think Hillary is more physical and Shelton will be even stronger come fall. He told me after the spring game he had to endure some teasing from his teammates in the secondary when he first arrived because of how small he was, but he’s rapidly putting on muscle and weight. Keep in mind, Shelton is one of the best secondary recruits Wisconsin has landed in recent years.

The Badgers will need to improve from a season ago. Even though the 2012 secondary of Southward, Johnson, Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith ranked 22nd nationally in pass efficiency, it almost seemed like a joke considering the team faced zero strong passing quarterbacks. If you’re a film junkie, do what I did and watch four or five games in a row from the season. There were multiple times that the secondary allowed a wide receiver to get behind them on a deep vertical route or just open in general, and they lucked out because the other team’s quarterback missed on the throw. Hopefully the press coverage will help solve the issues of the safeties and corners biting on double moves or losing receivers.

As far as playmakers go in the secondary, Southward is dynamite against the run. Wisconsin, though, still lacks a dominant playmaker against the pass. Besides walk-on legend Jim Leonhard’s UW single-season record of 11 interceptions in 2002, the highest total over the past decade of Wisconsin football is Shane Carter’s seven in 2007.

Of the 32 touchdowns Wisconsin’s defense allowed last season, 18 were through the air. Of those 18 passing touchdowns, 11 of them occurred from within the red zone. Will the change to press coverage alleviate those numbers? Time will tell.

Looking down the schedule, Wisconsin’s secondary will get tested early in the season when it travel to Tempe, Ariz., to take on Arizona State. The Sun Devils' junior quarterback, Taylor Kelly, was one of the most efficient in all of college football last year as only a sophomore, ranking eighth in the nation with a quarterback rating of 159.9 (3,029 passing yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions). This could be the early measuring stick of not only where the secondary is, but where the team is during the early going of the season. It could be, in another sense, last year’s Oregon State game.

Kelly should be the best pure passer the Badgers face all season, and he will serve as terrific preparation for a conference schedule that’s loaded with mediocrity at the quarterback position in regard to passing. If Wisconsin’s secondary can escape Sun Devil Stadium with a win, that game could serve as the vital experience that instills to confidence in the young starters.

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