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Development key for Wisconsin safeties under Jim Leonhard

Turnover at safety will be a storyline to watch in Leonhard’s first season as defensive coordinator.

Patrick Barron

Gone from the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers roster is the team’s MVP from a year ago, free safety Leo Musso.

In his emergent redshirt senior season, the Waunakee, Wis., native recorded 74 tackles (second on the team) and led the defense in interceptions (five), helping UW’s secondary overachieve after replacing three key starters from 2015.

Now with Musso off to try his hand in professional football—he attended a try-out with the New Orleans Saints a couple of months ago—Wisconsin defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard will have some options available at safety that should continue the steady trend seen over the past couple of seasons.

D’Cota Dixon is still listed as a senior, though he should receive an extra year of eligibility for medical hardship. He will be one of the leaders not just in the defensive backfield, but for the entire defense.

Dixon tied for fourth on the team in tackles in 2016 (60) while also tying for second in interceptions (four) with Arizona Cardinals-bound Sojourn Shelton. That makes him the leading returning player in the latter category. Resting here and there during the spring plus another year under Leonhard’s tutelage should pay dividends for Dixon.

With Musso gone, the main question is who will replace him at free safety. That appeared to be answered quickly in the spring with senior Natrell Jamerson sliding back in the secondary. The Florida native worked mostly with the first-team defense in yet another transition since arriving at UW four years ago.

Considering his newness to the position, there’s bound to be a learning curve, but one of Jamerson’s secondary mates gave a positive outlook after the 15 spring sessions.

“He’s doing pretty good,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said after the spring game. “He had to make two switches [from wide receiver to cornerback to safety] here, and I commend him for that. He’s at safety now, and he’s looking real good. He’s going to be an impact player back there.”

Like many of Wisconsin’s position groups, the depth at safety improved with spring reps. Most notably, redshirt senior Joe Ferguson saw time and performed well as a member of the first-team defense with Dixon resting, making interceptions among other plays. The Madison Memorial product was highlighted earlier in the spring:

“Hands down,” defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jim Leonhard said in an interview with UWBadgers.com, “he’s playing his best football here at Wisconsin. He has been highly productive and making a lot of plays. He’s playing very fast, which is great to see.”

A redshirt senior, Ferguson is experienced and can definitely bring a lot to the secondary next season.

“Joe, he’s a good guy. He keeps everyone laughing, keeps everyone in good spirits,” Jamerson said. “On the football field, he knows what he’s doing, and if somebody isn’t too sure what they’re doing, he’ll help them out. He’s just a great teammate.”

There’s also the likes of sophomore Patrick Johnson and redshirt freshmen Eric Burrell and Seth Currens, who were all called out by Leonhard in the spring.

Johnson played in 13 games last season as a true freshman and was listed on the depth chart as the second free safety behind Musso. Like Ferguson, the Maryland native was also praised by Leonhard in early April.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Safeties

Safeties 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Safeties 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
D’Cota Dixon SR 5’10 197 Oak Hill, Fla.
Natrell Jamerson SR 6’0 188 Ocala, Fla.
Joe Ferguson R-SR 6’1 195 Madison, Wis.
Lubern Figaro SR 6'0 185 Everett, Mass.
Patrick Johnson SO 5’11 203 Washington, D.C.
Eric Burrell R-FR 6’0 184 Severn, Md.
Seth Currens R-FR 6’3 208 Pickerington, Ohio
Evan Bondoc R-JR 6’1 203 Madison, Wis.
Blake Mielke R-SO 6’2 199 Hartland, Wis.
Bret Verstegen R-SO 5’11 183 Kimberly, Wis.
Cristian Volpenteseta R-FR 5’9 191 Highland Park, Ill.
Kobe Knaak R-FR 5’10 180 Franklin, Wis.
Scott Nelson FR 6’2 184 Detroit, Mich.