Before the start of the 2018 season, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard needed to replace Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal while adjusting to the surprise transfer of Dontye Carriere-Williams just days before the opener against Western Kentucky.
Though youthful and inexperienced at the collegiate level, Wisconsin’s cornerbacks displayed their respective talents and fought through the growing pains of a group gaining their footing during game action.
There were some rough moments where Wisconsin were susceptible against the pass (see: Purdue and Nebraska), but the position group continued to grow and develop ahead of the curve. Credit Leonhard and his defensive staff for their coaching efforts—and definitely the players for their mentality and continued progression.
Next season seems fruitful with a year of experience and development, and more than a handful of capable Badgers with game experience ready to fill roles. Let’s take a peek at B5Q’s expectations for Wisconsin’s corners coming up in 2019.
2018 statistical leaders
- Redshirt freshman Faion Hicks: 35 tackles, one for loss, one interception, three pass break-ups
- True freshman Rachad Wildgoose: 29 tackles, seven pass break-ups (led team), two fumble recoveries
- Redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams: 24 tackles, one interception, three pass break-ups
Expectation No. 1: Competition to continue in a deeper position group
Checking 2018’s stats, six Wisconsin cornerbacks officially registered starts last season. Those include:
- Hicks: 12 games played—11 starts
- Wildgoose: 10 games played—seven starts
- Williams: 12 games played—five starts
- Sophomore Madison Cone: 12 games played—two starts
- Redshirt freshman Deron Harrell: 10 games—five starts
- True freshman Donte Burton: Four games played—one start
For that matter, Burton and true freshman Alexander Smith both saw playing time (four games each), but under the new NCAA redshirt rule kept their year of eligibility.
Throw in 2019 signees Semar Melvin, James Williams and Dean Engram, and there appears to be a lot of talent for defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard and his staff.
I’m especially high on Wildgoose, who started seven of the last eight games. There were some defensive penalties called against him, but also showed a physicality and young maturity that shows a lot of promise for seasons ahead. B5Q’s Owen Riese gave his thoughts on the secondary earlier this month:
Wildgoose is a future lockdown cornerback. He really played well this season considering what he was asked to do. Hicks, Harrell and Williams are all starting-caliber corners. Cone and Burton will also be improved. Playing time is going to be hard to come by at times this season, which is a good problem.
Expectation No. 2: This position will become a strength of the defense
This is sort of a cause-and-effect type scenario for expectation No. 1. Competition will result in increased development for those jockeying for positions to play, and that along with another year of experience should result in a step forward for the position group as a whole.
Wisconsin finished the 2018 season ranked No. 22 in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 189.1 yards per game. In terms of passer rating efficiency, the Badgers’ defense ranked 40th (120.46). That last statistic was a step back from a season prior where it led the nation, but all things considered despite some rough outings—giving up 407 and 386 yards to Nebraska and Purdue, respectively—the secondary and its cornerbacks held up relatively well for such a youthful and relatively inexperienced group.
B5Q will hit on the safeties and what could come in 2019 within the next day or so, but with another year under its belt, the secondary is in good hands and should become a strength in Leonhard’s scheme.
Maybe this is a bold expectation for next season from my vantage point, but I also believe the cornerbacks will make more plays on the ball. Redshirt senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards led the team in interceptions with three, while the cornerback position picked off four passes combined (two by Cone). Maybe it’s not just an expectation, but a necessity for the unit to help the team in creating more turnovers to assist its offense.