Senior leadership and play guided the Wisconsin Badgers’ secondary to overachievement in 2016. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton and free safety Leo Musso combined for nine interceptions while earning all-conference nods (Shelton first-team honors by the media/second-team by coaches, Musso third-team by media/honorable mention by coaches).
Even without Shelton (now an Arizona Cardinals defensive back) and Musso (the team’s MVP), this year’s roster of defensive backs could perform at a similar or even higher level.
Why, and how? Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon return and should progress further in their second year under defensive backs coach and new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Nick Nelson, the former Hawaii cornerback, is finally eligible to play after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. He should slip into Shelton’s role and be a pest to opposing teams’ receiving targets. Combine that with senior Natrell Jamerson’s move to free safety—he also has substantial playing experience as a corner and nickel back—and these two position groups have a chance to build upon last year’s results.
For this preview, we’ll be looking primarily at the cornerback position, with a preview of the safeties coming later this week.
Tindal and Nelson both performed very well during spring practices. During the spring game, Leonhard told the Big Ten Network that Nelson had a great spring. Nelson also earned praise from the likes of redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
“I played against him everyday last year when we were running our offense and he was on scout team because he couldn’t play. He would be jumping routes,” Hornibrook said. “I just thought it was because he knew what route they were running, but he’s still doing it right now and it’s not because what route they were running. It’s because of his anticipation and his just natural ball skills.
“He’s a great corner and I can’t wait to watch him play this fall.”
Opposite Nelson, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst also mentioned Tindal “had a tremendous spring.” Tindal mentioned he wanted to become more of a leader and become more dominant during spring practices and felt he accomplished that.
If the duo can steer clear of injuries, there should be no real drop off in quality from the starting Wisconsin cornerbacks in 2017.
“As soon as he came in, we like clicked,” Tindal said about Nelson after the spring game, “and I already knew what he was capable of, so what everybody is saying now really didn’t surprise me. I worked out with him all of the time he couldn’t play. He impressed me that whole entire time, so I was confident in him and I knew what he could do.”
Wisconsin's Derrick Tindal broke up 12 passes in 2016 - tops among returning Big 10 corners. pic.twitter.com/O17Eprf5B4— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 5, 2017
Behind them, it should be intriguing to see how Lubern Figaro and Dontye Carriere-Williams continue to develop and work in fall camp as the Badgers look to lock down their third cornerback and nickel back spots.
Figaro is the senior who found confidence at cornerback last season under Leonhard after floundering in 2015. With Jamerson out for several games, Figaro filled in and registered 29 tackles with seven pass break-ups.
A redshirt freshman, Carriere-Williams showed promise in the spring sessions—even earning some time as the third cornerback depending upon personnel during those 15 sessions. Tindal, a fellow Florida native, also gave the St. Thomas Aquinas alum praise as a player who stood out between March and April.
There is depth in this position group, with redshirt freshman Caesar Williams—who saw his name on the depth chart as a second-team cornerback at times last season— sophomore Titus Booker, and true freshmen Madison Cone and Faion Hicks. Hicks was injured during the spring.
Wisconsin’s 2017 Cornerbacks
|Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
|Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
|Round Lake Beach, Ill.
|Grand Prairie, Texas
|Highland Park, Ill.