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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Sojourn Shelton, starters return in a talented secondary

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Inconsistency and an inability to force turnovers made it a rocky 2014 for the Wisconsin secondary. Look for things to turn around with an experienced unit in 2015.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers arguably return no more talent in any unit than they do in their secondary for the 2015 season. But in order for that talent to come to fruition, consistency from the unit will have to improve.

Starters junior Sojourn Shelton and fifth-year senior Darius Hillary return at cornerback, with fifth-year seniors Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy back at safety for the Badgers. Alongside those starters, Wisconsin returns nearly all of its backups, as well. It’s evident plenty of talent is returning, but so is the core of a secondary that only intercepted four passes in 2014.

Shelton took the Big Ten by storm as a freshman in 2013. He’s never been accused of not having enough swagger and his emotion was on high octane all year, finishing with four interceptions and 11 break ups. As a sophomore, he had zero interceptions and was often the target of opposing quarterbacks. Inconsistency hurt him as he played with noticeably less confidence.

Come spring practice in 2015, and an S.O.S was sent out throughout Madison: Spring of Sojourn. He had seven interceptions in 15 practices and was named to Big Ten Network’s All-Spring team. Finally, the confidence appears to be back for one of the most physically gifted players on the roster.

Opposite Shelton is Hillary, who is lesser discussed but coming off a stronger campaign. His five pass breakups and deflections were both one fewer than Shelton, but mainly as a result of quarterbacks targeting Hillary less.

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For 10 weeks, Hillary was the stalwart corner in the Badgers defense, including a three-catch, 33-yard stifling of All-Big Ten Illinois receiver Mike Dudek. Wisconsin fans don’t need to be reminded of how the tides turned over the remainder of the season—particularly against and Iowa and Ohio State.

Derrick Tindal and Devin Gaulden filled in at nickelback and, at times, performed better than the band by the same name. Of all incoming players, three-star freshman Titus Booker could make an impact, particularly in the event of injury or a standout fall camp. The 5'11 Illinois native was a standout running back in high school, but switched to defensive back with the Badgers.

At safety, Caputo led the Badgers in tackles in 2014 and an interception against Western Illinois. He’s a havoc-wrecking playmaker in the secondary that also provides important leadership as the team captain.

McEvoy returns to his rightful home at safety after the quarterback experiment wasn’t exactly a success in 2014 (though he ran the ball well, with 574 yards and an 8.8 yards per carry average). At 6'6, he has both the size and athleticism to thrive as a safety for Wisconsin, where he recorded five tackles against Auburn. Sophomore Lubern Figaro, who appeared in 13 games with seven starts, is expected to back-up McEvoy,

Returning leaders

Michael Caputo – 106 tackles (6 tackles for loss), 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 6 pass deflections

Sojourn Shelton – 33 tackles (1 TFL), 6 pass deflections

Darius Hillary – 41 tackles (3 TFLs), 5 pass deflections

Lubern Figaro -- 24 tackles (1.5 TFLs), 1 interception

Departing players

Peniel Jean, A.J. Jordan (switch to WR, per Wisconsin's online roster), Serge Trezy (switch to RB)

Additions to position

CB Titus Booker, CB Elijah Strong, CB Natrell Jamerson (switched from WR), S Evan Bondoc (redshirt), S Bret Verstegen

X-Factor: Sojourn Shelton

This could be the year of Shelton Island for the Badgers if all plays out well. Though Caputo is the team captain, Shelton is very much one of the emotional leaders of the defense.

Shelton can be a gambler in coverage, which I’m sure defensive coordinator Dave Aranda doesn’t mind in and of itself. He will have to limit the big plays in 2015 when he takes a gamble. He has the ability to cover any receiver, regardless of size or skill—but as last season showed, half the battle is with his confidence, which he appears to have back.

As Shelton goes, so does the secondary.