What's happening with Wisconsin's secondary?

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Donnell Vercher and Reggie Mitchell have jumped ship, and now a secondary that already lost three starters from last year faces significant upheaval. Can the Badgers recover?

In hindsight, we should've known the early going of Gary Andersen's tenure at Wisconsin was too rosy. From the initial reports of his hiring to his introductory press conference and spring ball, Andersen earned essentially unanimous reviews. He blasted Macklemore at practice, made a point to personally appeal to his players and nailed basically every public appearance he made -- whether it was flipping burgers at Culver's or taking his time to brighten a young, sick Badger fan's days.

Now we're at June 19, and three players have left the program this month. Danny O'Brien's departure is hardly surprising and you really can't blame him for seeking playing time elsewhere. Plus, Wisconsin's insanely deep at quarterback right now. But the other two are downright startling, both in their surprising developments and critical consequences on Wisconsin's roster. Reggie Mitchell was released from his scholarship, presumably to transfer to his hometown Pitt Panthers. Donnell Vercher presumably wanted to play for Wisconsin after committing as a JUCO recruit, though transcript issues prevented his admission to UW. Together, their sudden absences leave the Badgers with gaping holes in a secondary that already lost Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson and Devin Smith after last season.

So what now? Perhaps Andersen and his staff will continue mining the JUCO ranks to bring another defensive back in. That's hardly something to bet on, though. The unit could very well thrive under the element of early, early-season adversity, but it would take incredible developments from a few young and generally inexperienced players.

Cornerbacks: Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary (and Sojourn Shelton?)

All of a sudden, Peniel Jean is the "rock" in Wisconsin's secondary. Quotation marks are necessary qualifiers there considering he has zero career starts and has played in just 19 games. He has zero career interceptions and three pass deflections to his name, and his 2012 campaign was dramatically limited by a broken foot suffered shortly before the season-opener.

In fairness, Jean was a solid nickel back in 2011. He notched 23 tackles and seemed primed for a breakout 2012. With the 2013 secondary already in the shape it's in, Jean must be a steadying force for the other younger corners.

Hillary, meanwhile, was Wisconsin's No. 1 nickel back for much of 2012. He appeared in 14 games in his redshirt freshman year, meaning he's had decent exposure for a young guy, but has still never been a starter. He's versatile enough to play safety, as well, and he's been mentioned as a candidate to move back to safety following the losses of Mitchell and Vercher.

Whether or not Hillary switches positions, the Badgers would do well to get a breakout season from freshman Sojourn Shelton. As one of two early enrollees alongside fellow corner Keelon Brookins, Shelton had a fantastic spring, culminating in standout spring game performance. He's likely the No. 2 corner behind Hillary at this point, with redshirt freshmen and first-team All-Name candidate Hugs Etienne behind Jean. Junior Devin Gaulden could also be in the mix, if healthy.

Safeties: Dezmen Southward and Michael Trotter/Michael Caputo

This group has the benefit of a senior like Dezmen Southward, who's been widely pegged for a breakout final season. He'll likely be all over the field as first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda looks to get his top 11 players in the best possible positions. Southward was an honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree last season, starting all 14 games and notching 69 tackles (eight for loss).

Elsewhere, there's even less certainty than among the corners. Trotter, a junior, has started just three games and has yet to live up to the considerable hype that he brought to UW from nearby Racine. Caputo's a virtual unknown to Badgers fans, a sophomore who "saw action" in the Rose Bowl and notched 10 tackles all season. He redshirted his freshman year after coming from Imperial, Pa., as a three-star recruit. Nate Hammon, a redshirt freshman from Milton, Wis., also saw time with the first-team defense this spring.

Other possibilities include, as mentioned above, switching Hillary to safety. That might not be optimal, though, considering the already-thin depth at corner. Trotter will certainly get his shot to win the job, as will Caputo to some extent. A position switch could also be in the cards for JUCO transfer Tekeim Reynard, as well.

Consider all these guys in the mix, and perhaps we'll see a newcomer or two later this summer. But the fact remains that what began as a moderate weakness for 2013 is now a glaring concern for a Wisconsin team that is still managing to return the most lettermen of any BCS school.

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