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Wisconsin football preview 2016: Sojourn Shelton to lead new starters in Badgers’ secondary

UW must replace three starters in the secondary

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Wisconsin Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Wisconsin Badgers secondary was loaded with experience. Safeties Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy, alongside cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton, locked down the defensive backfield — allowing only 173.2 yards per game passing (7th best in the FBS) and seven touchdown passes (second fewest in the nation).

Three of the four are now gone, exhausting their eligibility. Hillary is competing for a roster spot with the Cincinnati Bengals, while McEvoy switched positions and moved to wide receiver in his bid to make an impact with the Seattle Seahawks. Caputo signed with the New Orleans Saints before being cut in May.

The lone starter from 2015, Sojourn Shelton will have to lead a secondary that’s one of the few question marks on Wisconsin’s defense heading into this season. Despite the lack of starts, cornerback appears to be in good hands with juniors Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson having significant game experience in subpackages.

Safety, on the other hand, will be up for grabs in a competition between several players who will be tested early against LSU on Sept. 3 and often against a daunting conference schedule.

All this, with a new defensive backs coach. Though Daronte Jones left for the Miami Dolphins, Wisconsin legend and 10-year NFL vetaran Jim Leonhard returns to Madison to mold the inexperienced position group.

Leaders at position (2015 stats)

  • Michael Caputo: 65 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass break-ups
  • Darius Hillary: 44 tackles, six pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries
  • Tanner McEvoy: 42 tackles, six interceptions
  • Derrick Tindal: 32 tackles, five pass break-ups
  • Sojourn Shelton: 29 tackles, seven pass break-ups

Returning players - Cornerbacks

  • Sojourn Shelton (Sr.)
  • Derrick Tindal (Jr.)
  • Natrell Jamerson (Jr.)
  • Titus Booker (RS Fr.)
  • Serge Trezy (RS Sr.)

Returning players - Safeties

  • D’Cota Dixon (Jr.)
  • Evan Bondoc (RS So.)
  • Leo Musso (RS Sr.)
  • Arrington Farrar (So.)
  • Keelon Brookins (RS So.)
  • Blake Mielke (RS Fr.)
  • Lubern Figaro (Jr.)
  • Joe Ferguson (RS Jr.)
  • Bret Verstegen (RS Fr.)

Departing players

  • Michael Caputo (eligibility)
  • Darius Hillary (eligibility)
  • Tanner McEvoy (eligibility)
  • Terrance Floyd (eligibility)
  • T.J. Reynard (graduation — transferred to Montana State)

Additions to position

  • Nick Nelson (transfer from Hawaii -- will sit out 2015)
  • Caesar Williams (Grand Prairie, Tex.)
  • Dontye Carriere-Williams (Hallandale Beach, Fla.)
  • Cristian Volpentesta (Highland Park, Ill.)
  • Seth Currens (Pickerington, Ohio)
  • Patrick Johnson (Washington D.C.)
  • Eric Burrell (Severn, Md.)

Likely starters at safety: D’Cota Dixon (SS) and Leo Musso/Arrington Farrar (FS)

Safety is the one true question mark for a defense returning a potent and dangerous front seven. Dixon received some big-time experience against Alabama last year, replacing Caputo at strong safety when he was injured in the second series of the game and recording nine tackles. The former three-star recruit was slowed by a groin injury during the spring, but when healthy — expect him to get first-team reps.

Leo Musso is the lone senior of the group, and the most experienced (38 games played, three career interceptions). He’s added six pounds to his frame from last year (194 from 186), which is now comparable to Dixon (5’10, 197 pounds). It’ll be needed against a powerful back like LSU’s Leonard Fournette.

Farrar has the physical size at 6’2, 215 pounds and also played in some defensive subpackages late last year. Expect an intriguing battle between both for free safety.

Behind them, Ferguson has played extensively in certain subpackages -- mostly becoming a third safety in the defensive backfield when there’s a two-or-three tight end set (think 12, 22, 13 or 23 personnel). Ferguson received reps in the spring with injuries to Dixon. There’s also Keelon Brookins, who’s back to the defensive backfield from linebacker. At 5’11, 218 pounds, he has impressive size.

There’s also Lubern Figaro, who opened the 2014 season at safety opposite Caputo against LSU in Houston. The Everett, Mass., native has floated between safety and cornerback now in his young career, and who owns the most starts of any safety on the team (seven). His versatility in the defensive backfield is reminiscent of former defensive back Zach Hampton, who moved from safety to cornerback for the 2006 season. How he fits into defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme will be something to watch.

Likely starters at cornerback: Sojourn Shelton, Derrick Tindal

Shelton’s played in all 40 games of the Wisconsin career with 37 starts. His 20 pass break-ups place him 12th all-time in school history. Tindal’s played in 24 games in two seasons with seven starts under his belt. Though UW will miss Hillary (54 career games played — tied for most in school history), they’ll solidify those spots,Jamerson moved to cornerback last season and played in defensive subpackages last season — registering four tackles against Minnesota on Nov. 28.

Maybe the X-factor for the corners, Titus Booker could see extensive time if he progresses further in his second year at the position. Not sure if true freshmen Dontye Carriere-Williams and Caesar Williams will see much action on the field, but if injuries fall on the cornerbacks, their presence may be needed quickly.