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2014 Wisconsin football preview: Michael Caputo expected to lead unproven group of safeties

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Last year, Michael Caputo made some big steps at safety. This year, he will need to assume the role as leader of the Badgers’ defensive backfield.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The common theme among the Wisconsin Badgers' defense this offseason has been change. Whether it's a change of schemes, a change in positions or a change in roles, this defensive unit enters 2014 season with plenty to prove. The challenge starts in the front seven, where the Badgers will replace all seven of last year's starters. And it extends into the secondary, where the Badgers will attempt to replace one consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten safety.

On one side, redshirt junior Michael Caputo returns as a starter. Last season, Caputo started 12 of the 13 games and finished with 62 total tackles, the second-highest total on the defense behind first-team All-American Chris Borland. This season, even more will be expected of Caputo as he looks to replicate his impressive 2013 season and also lead an inexperienced Badgers secondary.

On the other side, the Badgers will be looking for someone to replace graduated safety Dezmen Southward, who was drafted 68th overall by the Atlanta Falcons in May. Throughout his four-year career in Madison, Southward played in a school-record 54 games, starting every game since 2012. Now, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is searching for a replacement capable of playing with the high level of speed and intensity that Southward brought to the Badgers.

DEPTH CHART: SAFETIES
YEAR HT WT GP/GS HOMETOWN
Michael Caputo RS JR 6'1 212 26/12 Imperial, Penn.
Austin Hudson FR 6'2 205 -- Tampa, Fla.
Key reserves: RS SR Peniel Jean, RS JR A.J. Jordan, RS SO Leo Musso, FR Lubern Figaro
The rest: JR Serge Trezy, SO Joe Ferguson, RS FR Keelon Brookins

Most to prove

Caputo is coming off an impressive 2013 season in which he was recognized as an All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media. He is the leading returning tackler on the Wisconsin defense and is also the only player to start multiple games at the safety position (Leo Musso has started just a single game). This season, Caputo will be expected to grow into one of the leaders of not only the Badgers' secondary, but also the entire defensive unit.

With five of the top seven tacklers having left town, the question throughout Madison is how the Badgers' defense plans on making up those lost tackles. Many expect Caputo to be the answer.

Position Previews

During this offseason, coaches initially moved Caputo to outside linebacker, likely in attempt to get him closer to the ball in hopes of increasing his tackles. But he was ultimately moved back to his role as a starting safety due to the inexperience at the position. Despite the move back, Caputo is still expected to crash the line of scrimmage and lead the team in tackles.

X-factor

When examining the the pool of potential candidates for the starting job alongside Caputo, it is important to note that redshirt senior Peniel Jean has the most in-game experience. Since he made his Badger debut in 2011, Jean has played in 31 games, during which he registered 38 tackles and deflected seven passes.

Andersen is confident that Jean can play an effective role in the secondary after moving from cornerback to safety this offseason. He expects Jean to step in as the nickel corner in different packages, which was one of Southward's key jobs last season.

But Jean won't waltz into his new position unchallenged. As of right now, he's facing some serious competition from the other candidates, especially redshirt sophomore Leo Musso. In fact, it was Musso who initially started with the first team in last Sunday's scrimmage.

Competition for the other starting spot will continue to heat up as Aug. 30 draws closer. B5Q's Luke Mueller said in his post-spring defensive breakdown that he believes Jean has the edge over everyone else for the open spot because of his speed and athleticism, which, combined with his experience, will make him a very intriguing candidate to start. Even if he doesn't win the job, we can still expect to see Jean play a big role in the Badgers' secondary this season.

Rest of the position group

The list of potential candidates to take the open safety spot includes Jean, Musso, true freshmen Austin Hudson and Lubern Figaro, sophomore Joe Ferguson and converted receiver A.J. Jordan.

Many of these players are new faces in the safeties group this year, due especially to former safety Tanner McEvoy converting back to quarterback and defensive back Nate Hammon having to leave the team because of compartment syndrome in his legs. Although none of these candidates have played significant amounts of time at safety, many of them have raw talent at the position, which makes the battle for the starting job even more intriguing.

Last season as a freshman, Musso played in every game, finishing with 11 tackles and one interception. He is expected to contribute even more in the secondary this season and, right now, he is currently the front-runner to win the starting safety job.

Safeties coach Bill Busch has been impressed with the safeties' overall performance in camp.

"One thing we have is a lot of high intelligence, high energy and a great want-to," Busch said in a recent interview with FOX Sports Wisconsin.

Quotable

Figaro, a true freshman, has also earned practice time with the first team. Both Figaro and Hudson are being considered for the position despite this being their first years in Madison. Their exceptional performances so far have turned the heads of the rest of the staff and players.

"They're great," Musso said of Figaro and Hudson. "They came in, asked a lot of questions, are really smart and really physical. That's stuff you like to see out of young freshmen coming in. They picked up the defense fast. They just go about their business, work hard. That's kind of the standard we have here at Wisconsin. They're fitting that mold pretty nice."