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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Nick Nelson, others could be answer to replacing Sojourn Shelton

Who will step up to replace one of Wisconsin’s most productive cornerbacks?

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81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Heading into spring practice, the Wisconsin Badgers’ secondary is one of the most intriguing and wide-open position groups. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will need to replace two of the team’s most talented and dependable defensive backs from last season in cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Leo Musso.

Shelton started more games in his career than any other player in Wisconsin history (51) and was a huge part of the Badgers’ defensive success a year ago. He led the team in passes defended and consistently covered opponents’ No. 1 receivers.

The good news is Leonhard has a number of talented cornerbacks to work with in rebuilding the secondary unit. Senior Derrick Tindal figures to be Wisconsin’s No. 1 corner, but there are a handful of other players who will be vying for playing time in 2017. Head coach Paul Chryst and Leonhard will use spring practice to evaluate a high-upside cornerback corps.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Cornerbacks

Cornerbacks 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Cornerbacks 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Derrick Tindal SR 5'11 183 Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Nick Nelson R-JR 5'11 207 Glenarden, Md.
Lubern Figaro* SR 6'0 185 Everett, Mass.
Dontye Carriere-Williams R-FR 5'10 194 Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Titus Booker R-SO 5'11 187 Round Lake Beach, Ill.
Caesar Williams R-FR 6'0 176 Grand Prairie, Texas
Cristian Volpenteseta R-FR 5’9 191 Highland Park, Ill.
Madison Cone FR 5'9 172 Kernersville, N.C.
Faion Hicks FR 5'10 184 Miami, Fla.
Kobe Knaak R-FR 5’10 180 Franklin, Wis.

*Figaro is listed as a safety on Wisconsin’s 2017 spring roster, but did play cornerback/nickel back last year. We listed him at both positions in our spring previews.

**Both Christian Volpentesta and Kobe Knaak were listed as defensive backs on Wisconsin’s roster rather than cornerback or safety. We’ve added them to both position previews for now.

2016 Leaders

Sojourn Shelton: 31 total tackles, one tackle for loss, four interceptions, 12 passes defended (led team), one fumble recovery

Derrick Tindal: 34 total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, 10 passes defended, one forced fumble

Lubern Figaro: 29 total tackles, one tackles for loss, seven passes defended, one forced fumble

Natrell Jamerson: 19 total tackles, one tackles for loss, four passes defended

Titus Booker: Six total tackles

Key Departures

Sojourn Shelton (eligibility)

Serge Trezy (eligibility)

Key Additions

Madison Cone (midyear enrollee)

National Signing Day 2017: CB Madison Cone on committing to Wisconsin (Bucky’s 5th Quarter/YouTube)

Faion Hicks (midyear enrollee)

National Signing Day 2017: CB Faion Hicks signs with Wisconsin (Bucky’s 5th Quarter/YouTube)

Position Overview

A year ago, Wisconsin’s cornerbacks were a reliable, consistent group, even if they were picked on by quarterback Trace McSorley and Penn State’s elite passing attack in the Big Ten championship. That game put a damper on what was a pretty darn good group of cornerbacks for much of the 2016 season.

The Badgers must replace Shelton’s production and leadership, but Tindal returns as a starter and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson is a fresh face who started all 13 games as a sophomore for the Rainbow Warriors in 2015. Nelson will have to earn his spot as one of the team’s top two cornerbacks, but his 87 total tackles and 20 pass breakups in his first two years at Hawaii are impressive numbers even against Mountain West competition. Nelson is an exciting addition to the defense who brings Division I experience and is the most likely candidate to start opposite Tindal. Nelson has worked with the first-team defense in the first week of spring practices and figures to be an integral part of the Badgers’ secondary.

“Nick Nelson’s a really good football player,” Chryst told reporters on March 14, “and as a cornerback, we were with his transfer year and sitting out, he didn’t play in games—but we saw him play a lot of football. I think he makes us better in the back end. How does he complement DT or any of the other guys? I don’t know, I mean he’s a really skilled cornerback.”

Nick Nelson Ready to Contribute (CBS Sports/YouTube)

The position is wide-open after presumed starters Tindal and Nelson heading into spring practice. The nickel position was exposed in the Penn State game, with Figaro and Natrell Jamerson both getting beat deep multiple times during Wisconsin’s collapse. Figaro has loads of playing experience after logging snaps at safety as a freshman and sophomore, but he had some good moments early last season at cornerback and should get a chance to bounce back after tailing off a bit in 2016. With the news that Jamerson will be moving to safety, Figaro will likely get the first crack at the ever-important nickel position based on game experience alone.

There are, however, a slew of young cornerbacks chomping at the bit to see the field in 2017.

Dontye Carriere-Williams is a player to keep an eye on. The redshirt freshman hails from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—a hotbed for Wisconsin defensive backs in recent years. As noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus, Carriere-Wiliams was close to playing and did not participate in scout-team activities in 2016.

He’s a good candidate to see playing time and potentially become a breakout player for the Badgers, especially if Figaro can’t seize control of a starting spot. Fellow redshirt freshman Caesar Williams (core) and redshirt sophomore Booker (shoulder) both found themselves on the second-team depth chart last year. They will miss spring practice with injuries, but will compete for playing time in the fall.

Adding to the intrigue of this deep position group, are two early enrollees in Madison Cone and Faion Hicks. Both freshmen are likely redshirt candidates with so many cornerbacks in front of them on the depth chart, but spring practice gives them added time to impress the coaching staff. With the uncertainty at the position after Tindal, it’s hard to count out any of the cornerbacks on Wisconsin’s roster, even the true freshmen, this early in the process.