Wisconsin cornerbacks unproven, but confident entering Saturday's season-opener

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

No one really knows how Wisconsin's cornerbacks will fare this season, namely because many of them have never played at the Division I level. But despite their youth, the Badgers' corners don't lack confidence heading into Saturday's season-opener.

MADISON -- To this point, every transition of Sojourn Shelton's football career has taken shape with a minimal adjustment period.

From little league to school ball or from high school to college, Wisconsin's true freshman cornerback doesn't believe it matters. Once he has that first play under his belt, he's always found a comfort zone.

The 5-foot-9, 172-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., could be naïve to what Saturday holds for him: Stepping into an 80,000-seat stadium 1,500 miles from home as a starter for one of the Big Ten's best teams. While his defined biceps solidify the claim that he's added more than 20 pounds since arriving in Madison in January -- when he weighed no more than 150 -- his face still projects the youth of the high school player he was less than 12 months ago.

None of that bothers Shelton. In between the white lines, he says, he'll just be playing football -- and that's something he's quite used to.

"I know I'm going to be nervous, but once you get that first snap in, everything settles in," Shelton said. "That's the approach that I'm taking. I'll get adjusted and settled, and I'll be ready."

"When I first got here, things were a little hard at times. I think I've progressed in many ways from the spring time to the summer and into fall and now. I just want to go into this thing not too nervous and play football." -Sojourn Shelton

The Badgers better hope he's right, as Shelton isn't the only cornerback on the two-deep entering Saturday's opener against UMass lacking true experience playing Division-I football. In fact, sophomore Darius Hillary -- Wisconsin's starting nickelback -- stands as the group's only player with consistent meaningful playing time in his past, and second-stringers T.J. Reynard and Jakarrie Washington haven't seen a single snap in college.

But perhaps Shelton's confidence heading into Saturday isn't simply optimistic. Offensive coordinator Dave Aranda has put an emphasis on getting the growing pains out of the way early, by halftime of this week's opener.

"There are some guys that have played, but I think overall they're young," Aranda said of the cornerbacks. "To do that in practice is one thing. To do it on game day is another, and that's a step that we're all taking as a defense and I'm taking as a coach of this team. We'll take that step together. I've got full confidence that it will be successful."

Although the Badgers aren't facing a juggernaut in Week 1, the unknown depth at the position should begin to reveal itself this week. UMass likes to spread defenses out, requiring opponents to see the field and match up with multiple-receiver sets.

It's the popular trend in college football, and Saturday certainly won't be the last time Wisconsin will need to send extra defensive backs out to counter offenses with base sets that include four and five wide receivers. Head coach Gary Andersen even said he considers Hillary, the third corner expected to handle slot receivers, as one of the team's starters.

"Depth means a lot," said junior Peniel Jean, Wisconsin's other outside starter opposite Shelton. "[UMass] is a spread team, and so is Ohio State, so we are facing a lot of spread teams this year, and the depth is going to be the question. But we have that depth right now at cornerback and safety."

The Badgers' defensive backfield has a scheme change of its own this season, one that increases its potential vulnerability but allows for more opportunities to make plays.

While Wisconsin preferred to have its cornerbacks play zone coverage under former head coach Bret Bielema, they'll now be expected to hold their own in press man-to-man coverage with much more regularity.

Jean acknowledged the risk of that change, but he sees it as a chance for the cornerbacks to prove they can exceed expectations fans have for the group.

"You can be more aggressive and make more plays," Jean said. "There's some risk in that because you can give up plays as well, but it gives us a lot more opportunities to make plays, and that's what we're looking for this year.

"Every year we're doubted, (people) saying that we're the least favorite of the defense, and every year we come out and play well. Last year, we were ranked (fifth) in the Big Ten in passing yards (allowed) per game, and we were a question last year. Now it's this year, and we're going to do the same thing, just continue to keep working, working, working, and then we're going to be good on game day."

With an experienced group of linebackers and defensive linemen up front, Wisconsin's secondary could make or break the success of the entire defense.

It's a question that words can't answer. Shelton himself said he didn't envision himself as a starter when he arrived on campus seven months ago. It won't be much longer before everyone sees the truth behind what kind of improvement the Badgers' young corners have been able to accumulate throughout the offseason.

"To see the hard work that I put in and the progression that I've made, I would hope for any freshman to come in with the mindset to get on the field and be a starter because I know that's the mindset I came into college with," Shelton said. "When I first got here, things were a little hard at times. I think I've progressed in many ways from the spring time to the summer and into fall and now.

"I just want to go into this thing not too nervous and play football."

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