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Wisconsin football: secondary 2019 review and 2020 preview

How did the unit do last year, and what does the future look like?

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Over the next week or so, we here at B5Q are going to run through every position group on the Wisconsin Badgers football team and give you a recap of how they did in the 2019 season. In the same damn post we are also going to give you a preview of what we think 2020 is going to look like! Without further ado, here is your review/preview of the Wisconsin defensive secondary.

2019 statistical leaders

  • (S) Reggie Pearson - 60 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, four pass breakups
  • (S) Eric Burrell - 55 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six pass breakups.
  • (S) Collin Wilder - 19 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, six pass breakups.
  • (CB) Caesar Williams - 35 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 10 pass breakups, one forced fumble.
  • (CB) Faion Hicks - 32 total tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup.
  • (CB) Rachad Wildgoose - 22 total tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception, six pass breakups.

2020 returning statistical leaders

  • EVERYONE IS BACK!!! At least as of now.
  • Scott Nelson - the opening game starting safety missed all but one contest in 2019. Recorded 41 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble in 2018.

2019 secondary overview

Overall the Wisconsin secondary had a positive 2019 season. Fairly experienced in terms of games played, yet young in terms of eligibility, Jim Leonhard’s unit did a nice job in coverage most of the season despite losing starting safety Scott Nelson in the first game of the year. The secondary was a big reason for the Badgers defense ranking nationally No. 9 in limiting third-down conversions, No. 6 in opponent completion percentage, No. 10 in points allowed, No. 12 in passing yards allowed, and No. 31 in interceptions.

The Badgers rotated in a lot of different combinations of players in the secondary, indicative of the depth of talent in the program, but also potentially a lack of separation between the players in regards to production.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Starting with the safety position, Wisconsin utilized a three safety look frequently. Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson were the primary starters at the position after Nelson’s injury. Burrell was more of a prototypical free safety in this pairing, reeling in three interceptions on the season, while also helping nicely in run support. Pearson was more of a quintessential strong safety, in the mold of Michael Caputo, who was stout in run support and a solid tackler in space.

Collin Wilder and hybrid defensive back Madison Cone also contributed at the safety spot in all 14 games this season in a reserve capacity. Each player was called upon at times to spell the starters and occasionally as a third safety in specific packages. Freshman walk-on John Torchio also saw limited time, particularly in the Michigan game where he was started with Pearson and Burrell both out for the first half due to targeting penalties from the game prior. Torchio intercepted a pass in that game, and demonstrated why the staff is high on him moving forward.

At cornerback Deron Harrell and Faion Hicks began the season as the starters for the opener against South Florida. As the season went on though, Harrell surprisingly did not play the final seven games. In his place, junior Caesar Williams would go on to start the majority of the games. The dyad of Hicks — a sophomore — and Williams were formidable this season. Williams specifically played well as the season wore on, finishing the season leading the team in pass breakups, and he did a tremendous job against Minnesota and their talented receiving corps.

Behind them, Rachad Wildgoose was the primary nickel corner for most of the season. The true sophomore did some nice things in run support and in coverage. Unafraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone, his aggressiveness is good for the defense. Redshirt freshmen Donte Burton and Alexander Smith also saw action in a limited fashion, while true freshman Semar Melvin looked the part of a Big Ten corner in the four games he played in while preserving his redshirt status.

2020 secondary preview

With everyone slated to return to Wisconsin next season, expectations are high for this portion of the defense. The group seemed to improve from 2018 to 2019, and with another year of development and tutelage under Jim Leonhard a similar jump may be in the works.

Hicks and Williams will likely enter spring practices as the top corners. The interesting nuance to watch here will be Deron Harrell (pictured below). If he can return to the player that flourished in fall camp, he will have a chance to disrupt that top group. Rachad Wildgoose, Donte Burton, Alexander Smith, and Semar Melvin will all be battling to round out the two-deep. Wildgoose has the leg up as the nickel, but the other three youngsters have also flashed their talent and potential at times.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Speaking of the nickel role, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wisconsin deploy three safeties more frequently next season, assuming everyone is healthy. Eric Burrell, Reggie Pearson, and Scott Nelson will duel it out for the two starting positions. Burrell will be a senior, and he has done a tremendous job the past two seasons at creating turnover opportunities. Nelson, a junior, is one of the more vocal leaders on the team — something that will be needed with Chris Orr’s departure — but is coming off of a major injury. Pearson is the youngest player of the group, but he may be the most physically gifted as an in the box safety. I think the main battle for playing time will be between Nelson and Burrell for that free safety position.

The depth in the secondary in 2020 will undoubtedly be a strength, but the position battles in the spring and during fall camp should be fun to watch. Jim Leonhard may have to get creative to get his best players on the field at the same time. I would personally not be surprised to see the Badgers use three safeties as a base defense given the skill available at safety.

Name to watch for 2020

Max Lofy is the only newcomer to join the fold from the 2020 recruiting class, but Semar Melvin from the 2019 class is the guy to watch. The talented prospect came in and earned time during four games in 2019, even with a crowd of capable contributors in front of him. Coming off of a redshirt season in which he started the Minnesota game as the nickel corner, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a nice leap and work his way into the two-deep come fall.

2020 spring depth chart projection (2020 eligibility)

  • Cornerback - Faion Hicks (redshirt junior); Rachad Wildgoose (junior)
  • Cornerback - Caesar Williams (redshirt senior); Donte Burton (redshirt sophomore)
  • Free Safety - Eric Burrell (redshirt senior) or Scott Nelson (redshirt junior)
  • Strong Safety - Reggie Pearson (redshirt sophomore); Collin Wilder (redshirt senior)