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Wisconsin’s cornerbacks’ depth bodes well for competition in 2019

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Let’s swing over to the defense real quick to check on the corners.

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NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With the Wisconsin Badgers losing key starters at nose tackle, both inside and outside linebacker, along with the safety, their cornerbacks come back stacked with contributors from last year’s squad.

By Wisconsin’s official stat count in 2018, six different corners started games for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit. All did not exhaust their eligibility, and two true freshmen even retained their redshirt year though they played in four games thanks in part to a new NCAA rule.

The competition during spring and fall camp practices should strength the relatively young position group even further heading into the 2019 season. Three more freshmen corners in Dean Engram, Semar Melvin and James Williams enter the program during the summer, but for now, let’s settle in on who’s on campus for spring ball.

Presumed 2019 spring roster for Wisconsin’s cornerbacks

  • Donte Burton, sophomore (four games, one start): Five tackles
  • Rachad Wildgoose, sophomore (10 games, seven starts): 29 tackles, seven pass break-ups (led team), two fumble recoveries
  • Deron Harrell, redshirt sophomore (10 games, five starts): 10 tackles, two pass breakups
  • Alexander Smith, redshirt freshmen (four games): One tackle, one pass breakup
  • Faion Hicks, redshirt sophomore (12 games, 11 starts): 35 tackles, one for loss, one interception, three pass break-ups
  • Caesar Williams, redshirt junior (12 games, five starts): 24 tackles, one interception, three pass break-ups
  • Travian Blaylock, redshirt freshman (four games played, still listed at corner): one fumble recovery
  • Cristian Volpentesta, redshirt junior (four games played)
  • Madison Cone, redshirt sophomore (12 games, two starts): 19 tackles, two interceptions, one pass pass breakup
  • Kobe Knaak, redshirt junior: did not play in 2018

*all stats from 2018 season

Check out our discussion about the cornerbacks with The Athletic’s Jesse Temple on a recent edition of Bucky’s 5th Podcast. Be sure to follow on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and pretty much everywhere where you listen to your favorite podcasts!

Who and what to watch for

This time last year, many (including us at B5Q) thought Dontye Carriere-Williams would lock down one corner spot for the next few years while awaiting to see if Cone, Hicks or Caesar Williams would emerge opposite him. Harrell just was making the transition from wide receiver, and Burton enrolled mid-year to take advantage of spring reps.

Carriere-Williams now plays at Vanderbilt after leaving Wisconsin a few days before the 2018 season opener, and the aforementioned five plus true freshman Rachad Wildgoose all contributed last season.

This is not necessarily a bold prediction, though B5Q spoke about expectations for this group in late January, but competition among these players in a deep roster can turn the cornerbacks into a strength for the defense for 2019.

It will be worth watching who establishes themselves in the spring to propel into fall camp reps in August. Based on last year and how the coaching staff seemingly mixed and matched players in the secondary together, I hypothesize that they will do the same again so players are comfortable with each other and the safety group as well.

All six who started showed glimpses of what makes them valuable in the defensive backfield. Burton and Cone can play in the slot during nickel situations, and the latter led all corners with two interceptions in 2018. For that matter, Burton technically redshirted last year despite starting in the triple-overtime win at Purdue and playing in four contests, and that experience can definitely help a player develop.

Hicks and Williams began the 2018 season as the starting corners after earning those honors during with their overall fall camp play, and the former started the most games out of every player in the group last year (11). Though he did have a rough outing against likely NFL first-round draft pick T.J. Hockenson and Iowa during the late September road win, but he also started the final six games of the season. Williams ended the season on a high note with a start and an interception in the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl win over Miami in late December.

Ascending quickly to a contributing role after coming to Wisconsin in the summer, I feel especially high on Wildgoose. He pushed his way up the depth chart midway through the season, started seven games and led the team in pass breakups. Though he was called for some penalties last season as a first-year contributor, the spring should allow him to work on more technique and fundamentals.

There is also Smith, the California product who saw time in four games and recorded a pass breakup against Illinois.