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2014 Wisconsin football preview: Sojourn Shelton leads Badgers' cornerbacks

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Wisconsin's cornerbacks are a largely unproven but talented group that could define how the defense fares in 2014.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

First off, an apology/explanation of sorts. After rolling through the first half of our position previews at a pace of nearly one per day, we hit a snag. That wasn't really the plan. Between the realities of dayjobs, some staff turnover and just general stuff, we got away from the series way more than intended. Apologies for that.

It's not all negative, though. Fall camp is well under way, which provides the opportunity to finish these position previews with a few fresh observations from Camp Randall Stadium.

We're up to the cornerbacks, and Rex provided us with a nice jumping-off point in last Friday's video of the day: Sojourn Shelton's strong freshman campaign. To recap: the 5'9, 178-pound Florida native earned playing time from the start, appearing in every game and starting all but one. In doing so, he became Wisconsin's first freshman to start a season-opener since Travis Frederick in 2009. His four interceptions tied for third-most in the Big Ten, third among among the country's true freshmen and the most ever by a UW true freshman. He also led the Badgers in passes defended with 11.

With Shelton as their top performer, the Badgers were extraordinarily young in the secondary last season. The lone senior was Dezmen Southward, and he eventually became a third-round NFL draft pick. Now, everybody's a year older and more experienced, and only the safeties lose a major body. Opposite Shelton at cornerback is Darius Hillary, a junior who started all 13 games last year and finished second with five passes defended. He has experience playing the nickel, and could very play there in certain sub-packages. Much depends on how the safety position shakes out, as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda showed last year an affinity for throwing as many as three or four safeties onto the field on passing downs.

So Shelton and Hillary are the two starters at corner, pretty solid for a Big Ten defense. But behind them, how will the picture shake out? Can Shelton avoid the "sophomore slump," a cliched bit of alliteration that there might still be something to? And can Hillary avoid being a target for big plays, like he was at times last year?

DEPTH CHART: CORNERBACKS
YEAR HT WT INT PD GP/GS HOMETOWN
Sojourn Shelton SO 5'9 178 4 4 12/11 Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Darius Hillary RS JR 5'11 188 1 7 27/14 Cincinnati, Ohio
Devin Gaulden RS JR 5'10 187 0 0 10/0 Miramar, Fla.
Dare Ogunbowale RS SO 5'11 188 0 0 8/0 Milwaukee, Wis.
Key reserves: JR T.J. Reynard, FR Derrick Tindal
The rest: RS JR Terrance Floyd, FR D'Cota Dixon

Camp updates

Not much has been heard regarding Shelton, which is probably a good thing in the same fashion as we talk about offensive linemen and kickers. He had two pass break-ups and one pick-six on the second day of camp, but otherwise, you can't even find a word about him on Twitter.

As for Hillary, talk has been quiet as well. BadgerNation named him the 15th-most important Badger this season, noting that if Hillary can cut down on allowing some big plays (the entire secondary was victimized last year, not just Hillary), he could be primed for a fantastic junior season.

X-factor

Devin Gaulden. The redshirt junior has appeared in just 10 games while struggling with knee injuries, and he missed all of last season. But after a nice spring and solid performance this fall, he's back in the picture. Here's B5Q's Luke Mueller's take on Gaulden from the spring:

He looks like he hasn't lost a step since his injuries. He's great in coverage and will be a pesky nickel back for any slot receiver. He may be the most fundamentally sound corner of the group, which I believe is due to his work off the field and in the film room during his time away.

Rest of the group

D'Cota Dixon is one of those freshmen who's impressed early on in camp. He earned his helmet "W" on Friday, but has actually been spending much of camp at inside linebacker given his size (5'10, 206 pounds) and abilities to rush the passer and defend running backs out of the backfield. He could still end up in the secondary at times, especially as Aranda continues to preach the virtues of versatility in this year's defense.

Dare Ogunbowale earned his first letter last season and appeared in eight games. T.J. Reynard also earned his first letter while playing in seven games following his JUCO transfer. Terrance Floyd appeared in just four games, also earning his first letter

Quotable

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article linked above (here it is again) focusing on Aranda's emphasis on flexibility throughout the defense, he expressed confidence that being less rigid in terms of position groupings and schemes will provide a definite improvement from last season.

"We want to be able to get away from the area of specialization where you only play this spot," Aranda said, "to where we can be flexible enough to where we can apply different concepts and get in and out of things."

Aranda wants members of the defense, which features many new faces, to be more multiple, more flexible.

"What that enables us to do is to really try to push the mixing of defenses," he explained. "We want to play man this down, zone this down, blitz this down, drop eight this down.

"That is really what I feel our ability is. That is a goal of ours in this camp, to be able to throw things at them, let that intelligence be rooted in flexibility as opposed to just a rigid structure."