MADISON — In consecutive weeks, the Wisconsin Badgers lost two significant pieces to their defense.
In UW’s season-opening win against No. 5 LSU, sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr sustained a season-ending right knee injury on the Tigers’ first offensive play of the game. Wisconsin’s defense continued to sustain its dominance with a deep position group including former walk-ons Jack Cichy and Ryan Connelly (15 tackles combined vs. LSU) and a returning T.J. Edwards the following Saturday against Akron.
It’s the second extensive injury to the defensive unit, this time to junior cornerback Natrell Jamerson, that will require several players to step up in contributing roles in a key stretch of games.
Jamerson, a 6’0, 188-pound defensive back from Ocala, Fla., will miss the next four-to-six weeks with a left leg injury, Wisconsin announced on Monday. Not only will the Badgers need to replace their third cornerback and lead nickelback, but also a key contributor to an often overlooked phase of the game.
“It’s interesting when a guy like Natrell goes down," Chryst said. "He’s a four-phase special-teamer, so you have four different guys that will probably get an opportunity. [For the] nickel package, we’ll see how this week goes a little bit.”
“Four phase” refers to the return and coverage units for both punts and kickoffs. On the coverage teams, it will be intriguing to see who takes on the roles Jamerson anchored. His absence will also be felt in the kickoff return game, where he’s led the team in that category for the past season-plus.
Through two games in 2016, he returned three kicks, averaging 20 yards per, and last year took one back 98 yards in Wisconsin’s win against Maryland in November. To compensate, Chryst and special teams coach Chris Haering may utilize their game changer on the offensive side of the ball.
On Wisconsin’s depth chart this week, senior running back Corey Clement is listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner, with true freshman wide receiver A.J. Taylor behind him. Having your star back taking back kickoffs is an intriguing proposition, but also a gamble. Clement suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter against Akron last week and has been limited early this week, though he told reporters on Tuesday he expects to play against Georgia State (0-2) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“No,” Chryst said Monday when asked if it’s too much of a risk to put Clement back there. “He’s been working it all camp, and to this point, we haven’t had a lot of kickoff returns. Absolutely, it’d be viable.”
On Thursday afternoon, however, Chryst told reporters Taylor would return kickoffs with Clement’s status still up in the air.
Defensively, the challenge lies with whom to replace Jamerson as that third cornerback in nickel subpackage. It’s not just working in the slot against a shiftier receiver or an elusive tight end in that position, but the junior also had the ability to move around, according to defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard.
“First of all, it was a lot of flexibility,” Leonhard said when asked about Jamerson’s contributions. “He hadn’t had to the first games, but he’s very good playing inside. He’s very good playing to the field. He’s very good playing to the boundary, so with those three guys [Jamerson, junior Derrick Tindal and senior Sojourn Shelton], I was able to kind of pick and choose where I wanted them.
“Now, when you take that piece out of the puzzle, I’m not saying we can’t do that, but it might be a little bit different. We need somebody to step up, and once again, it’s going to be someone that doesn’t have a whole lot of experience playing on the outside.”
That’s not to say there aren’t players ready to step up or different combinations to utilize. With starters Tindal and Shelton, Leonhard mentioned both are comfortable moving inside at the slot corner position. Their ability to play in multiple cornerback spots alleviates some concerns and can provide matchup problems for opponents’ passing schemes.
In practice this week, the “next man up” mentality has been prevalent.
“Lubern [Figaro] has been stepping up, making a lot of plays. Dontye [Carriere-Williams] has been stepping up, making a lot of plays. Titus [Booker],” Shelton said on Wednesday when asked who’s worked to compensate for Jamerson’s absence. “We have a group where somebody goes down, you can insert another player and they’ll do the job just equally and get the job done.
“A lot of these guys are playing with confidence and swagger, and it’s gotten us to the point where we are now. Right now, I think we’re in pretty good shape, but at the same time, we just want to keep getting better and understand we can truly get better. It’s one thing to say it, but when the players see it and know they can get better, that’s when everything comes together and gels.”
Figaro is listed on the depth chart as one of the No. 2 cornerbacks. It’s been a rollercoaster journey for the Massachusetts native, who started seven games at free safety in 2014 before giving way to redshirt senior Peniel Jean.
Last season, he switched over to cornerback in then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme. Though he played in 11 games, he recorded only one tackle. It was a difficult transition, one that sapped him of an important intangible.
“I didn’t really have that much confidence last year, but now my teammates picked me up,” Figaro said. “I feel my confidence is way up now, and it’s great. With coach Leonhard here, he trusts me a lot, and that was a great thing, too.”
Leonhard said on Wednesday that there were ongoing discussions about how they’ll approach the secondary personnel, which included possibly pulling the redshirt off of true freshman Caesar Williams. The Grand Prairie, Texas, native is listed as a second-team cornerback alongside Figaro and impressed in fall camp, but he hasn’t played in the team’s first two games in what appears to be a “redshirt-ready” role.
On Thursday, Williams was announced as out against the Panthers with a leg injury, further restricting the possible contributors for at least one more week.
Leonhard, a former All-American and 10-year NFL veteran, still wouldn’t say who exactly would replace Jamerson against Georgia State and beyond in certain situations, but it appears the coaching staff has plans in place for the foreseeable future.
“We have what we think are the answers for this week, and then you go from there,” Leonhard said. “You expect guys to come in and play well, and that’s my expectations from the way they’ve played all camp, all spring.
“I expect the next guy to step up, and if they don’t, then you have to go back to the drawing board—but we think we’re comfortable in the decisions we’re making at this point.”