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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at defensive backs

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Seasoned players return to a Badgers secondary that will be called upon to help lead the defense.

Sojourn Shelton will look to replace Peniel Jean's interceptions in 2015.
Sojourn Shelton will look to replace Peniel Jean's interceptions in 2015.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary for Wisconsin in 2014 was quite the conundrum. When looking at the stats, you'd see that Wisconsin gave up the least amount of passing yards per game in the Big Ten (168). You would see that Wisconsin's opponent's completion percentage was 49 percent, a mere half percent behind best in the conference, Nebraska. That all sounds like the making of an elite pass defense.

However, a closer look at some more numbers shows a different picture. Wisconsin faced, on average, the least amount of pass attempts per game in the conference (24.8). The Badgers also only gave up 14.7 first downs per game, a mere 0.1 first downs behind conference leader Penn State. A stout front seven contributed to the Badgers putting opponents in "passing down" situations often, allowing the secondary to tee off, as it were, on pass plays.

If you look at the Badgers' S&P+ ranking for passing defense, they were ranked 29th in the country. When that is whittled down to just passing downs (defined as 2nd-and-8 or more, or 3rd/4th-and-5 or more), the Badgers shoot up to seventh in the country. So, it looks like when the Badgers knew a pass was coming they were really quite good at defending it.

More early previews: QB RB WR TE OL DL LB Special teams Coaching staff

I have chosen to take this with a grain of salt the size of my head (I have a large head) mostly because of the caliber of quarterback Wisconsin played against this year. The highest rated quarterback the Badgers faced this year was Nick Marshall, who had a pretty solid bowl game (16-of-23, 216 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions) and kept Auburn in the game 'til the end. Gary Nova was the second highest rated passer the Badgers faced this season, and he was hurt before the game and is also terrible. Cardale Jones didn't play enough snaps to be properly rated, but we all know how well he did against the Badgers. The rest of the signal callers Wisconsin played against were a mishmash of runners who couldn't throw well and bad throwers who couldn't run well.

This may be a bit of a pessimistic view of the Wisconsin secondary from last year, since Michael Caputo may have been the defense's most valuable player, but the Badgers' cornerbacks had a down year and had trouble making plays on the ball which often resulted in defensive pass interference penalties or big completions. However, there is a lot of talent in the secondary and almost everyone is coming back for 2015. With secondary coach Daronte Jones joining the Wisconsin coaching staff, there is an opportunity for improvement for everyone.

2014 Leaders

Cornerback: Darius Hillary (41 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended), Sojourn Shelton (33 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 6 passes defended), Derrick Tindal (10 tackles, 1 sack)

Safety: Caputo (106 total tackles -- which led team, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 7 passes defended, 1 interception, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles), Lubern Figaro (24 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 pass defended, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble), Peniel Jean (59 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery), Austin Hudson (who is listed as a DB on the official roster, but we'll put him here: 19 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble)

Returning

Cornerback: Shelton (JR), Hillary (RS SR), Devin Gaulden (RS SR), Tindal (SO), T.J. Reynard (SR), A.J. Jordan (RS SR), Terrance Floyd (RS SR)

Safety: Michael Caputo (RS SR), Lubern Figaro (SO), Austin Hudson (SO) Keelon Brookins (RS SO), Leo Musso (RS JR), Joe Ferguson (RS SO), Evan Bondoc (SO), Danny Supernaw (RS SO)

Departed

Cornerback: None

Safety: Peniel Jean

Additions

Cornerback: Titus Booker (Grayslake Comm North, Grayslake, Ill.)

Safety: Serge Trezy (a DB on the spring roster, RS JR, Eastern Arizona JC, Orlando, Fla.)

X-Factors: Sojourn Shelton and Lubern Figaro

Shelton had such an excellent freshman season (36 tackles, seven passes defended, four interceptions) that he was named preseason first team All-Big Ten by the Sporting News coming into 2014. He was the first true freshman to start a season opener for Wisconsin since 2009! Expectations were high coming into his sophomore campaign that Shelton could be the next Jamar Fletcher! But needless to say those expectations will be a bit tempered coming into 2015 after his second year.

Shelton is, how should I put this, short. He will never be able to win a jump ball against most receivers in the B1G, but that didn't seem to matter his freshman year. Maybe offensive coordinators didn't know how tall he was? Maybe he was on Tanner McEvoy's shoulders during warmups? I don't know. What I do know is that during his sophomore year, teams threw deep on him and while they didn't always complete the pass, they did often get pass interference called on him.

Now, Shelton is still the most talented cornerback on Wisconsin's roster and will be counted on to have a bounce back season. If he is able to return to his ball-hawking freshman year style and not continue his defensive holding sophomore year tendencies, Wisconsin's secondary could be one of the better units in the conference.

Splitting starts next to Caputo throughout the season with Jean, Figaro made a nice impact as a true freshman. He had 24 tackles, forced a fumble and picked off his first career pass against Bowling Green. With Jean graduating, Figaro will be the undisputed starter heading into spring ball with Caputo but will also be the least experienced member of the secondary.

Figaro had nice stats in high school (and showed a proclivity for the big play) and played on the Massachusetts Division 1-A state champs for three straight years, so it is not completely unsurprising that he won playing time as a true freshman. However, as the most unproven member of what should be a strong Wisconsin secondary, all eyes will be on Figaro to see if he made improvements in the offseason and can avoid a Shelton-esque sophomore slump.

Bonus Fun Fact on Figaro: he's cousins with Nerlens Noel of Kentucky and Sixers fame.

Early prediction for starters: Hillary and Shelton at cornerback, Caputo and Figaro at safety

The Badgers are losing half of their starting linebackers and two thirds of their starting defensive line going into 2015. The secondary is only losing one (part-time) starter and returning the rest of their major contributors. Wisconsin's front seven was undeniably its strength on defense last year, putting pressure on the quarterback, forcing bad throws and shutting down the run while also covering up for some of the deficiencies the secondary had.

That will not be the case this year. The Badgers will be looking to the secondary both for veteran leadership and veteran production. Caputo will again headline the unit, making plays against the pass as well as supporting the run. He will undoubtedly have over 100 tackles again with a couple of forced fumbles and a few picks for good measure. The rest of the secondary is where it gets trick with predictions.

Shelton should have a bounce back season and probably be close to his freshman year production of four interceptions. Hillary has been the ideal Wisconsin defensive back, improving his game every year and ready to star in his senior season. While Shelton should be better than he was last year, Hillary will be the cornerback that Big Ten quarterbacks avoid in 2015. Figaro will be solid, if unspectacular, next to Caputo with an eye toward being "the man" in 2016.

The Badgers only forced 17 turnovers last year, with five coming against the tire fire that is Nebraska's offense when they play in Camp Randall, and only six of those were interceptions. The Badgers can get 10 or more picks next year while still holding teams under 180 yards per game through the air. The veteran back four will make up for a rebuilt front seven and keep the Badgers near the top of the conference in most major defensive statistics.