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Wisconsin football spring position preview: secondary

The back half of the defense looks like it could be incredibly deep for the Badgers.

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NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Returning players:


Faion Hicks, Junior, 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, No. 1

Rachad Wildgoose, Junior, 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, No. 5

Dean Engram, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-9, 164 pounds, No. 6

Deron Harrell, Junior, 6-foot-2, 182 pounds, No. 8

Alexander Smith, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, No. 11

Donte Burton, Sophomore, 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, No. 17

Semar Melvin, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-11, 166 pounds, No. 20

Caesar Williams, Senior, 6-foot, 188 pounds, No. 21

Travian Blaylock, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, No. 26

Cristian Volpentesta, Senior, 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, No. 27

Kobe Knaak, Junior, 5-foot-9, 189 pounds, No. 36


Reggie Pearson, Sophomore, 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, No. 2

Scott Nelson, Junior, 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, No. 9

Titus Toler, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, No. 12

Collin Wilder, Senior, 5-foot-10, 194 pounds, No. 18

John Torchio, Sophomore, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, No. 19

Eric Burrell, Senior, 6-foot, 195 pounds, No. 25

Tyler Mais, Junior, 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, No. 30

Madison Cone, Senior, 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, No. 31

Dante Caputo, Freshman (RS), 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, No. 38

Departing players:

James Williams, Medical Retirement

Arriving players:

Max Lofy, Freshman, 5-foot-11, 170 pounds

Position overview

Overall, the Wisconsin defense returns a lot of talent, but the most depth might be at the secondary positions. Additionally, most of this group has played a lot of football early in their career. We’ve seen the likes of Hicks and Wildgoose for two seasons and they are just now becoming upperclassman. The same can be said at safety as Pearson will return from a strong season as just a sophomore.

The cornerback position is deep, but coming into the season, Hicks and Williams will likely be your projected starters. Hicks had a good 2019 season and Williams really emerged as a great corner in the back half of the season.

At safety the picture is great as well. The starters will be that of Pearson and Burrell, one of the more dynamic duos in the conference. Pearson can help on the run and lay the wood as good as anyone. Burrell came in last season after the injury to Nelson and played great. Recently he was named to Pro Football Focus’s Top Ten Returning Players for the Big Ten Conference. Behind them though is still plenty of talent as Nelson, Wilder, and Cone will all look to work into the rotation.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who needs a big spring to crack the two-deep/who are you most excited to see in spring?

At cornerback I think Burton and Harrell will need to have big springs and good falls to get into the rotation. Last season Harrell was a starter to begin the season but appeared to drop as Williams emerged. Burton saw a little action but will need to prove himself to get consistently on the field. Leonhard will work a lot of guys into games, but right now I think your top three are Hicks, Williams, and Wildgoose. Wildgoose is a great nickel corner and should assume that role again, but I wound look for the likes of Burton and Harrell to try and compete for the two outside spots.

One player that I am really excited to see is Nelson at safety. Last season, Nelson was hit by the injury bug after just two games and missed the remainder of the year. While it was incredibly disappointing, it allowed the emergence and strong play of Pearson and Burrell. However, Nelson still has a lot to prove. In his Freshman season Nelson was excellent along side D’cota Dixon, so if he can come back out and give the Badgers a strong third safety this group could really be special.

Who has the potential to be an all-conference performer (no players who have already made an all-conference team)?

Burrell has all the potential and I would put money down that he will make it. He was great last season and I don’t expect a player like him to regress. I would be surprised if he didn’t, and I also think Pearson has a chance to make a team as well. Really, the sky is the limit for both of those guys and I think we’re going to be in for a really special season from them. At corner. I think both Hicks and Williams could make a jump to an all Big Ten Team. Both guys showed strong flashes in 2019, but a consistent 2020 of high caliber player like that could really boost them up.

BYU v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Where will this position group improve from last season?

At both corner and safety this group will improve with the sheer amount of talented depth they have. Jim Leonhard plays his best guys, and each guy in the two deep could make an argument to get onto the field. With that, I think that sets up the group nicely. If one guy isn’t getting the job done, someone else gets their shot. If someone gets hurt or suspended for targeting, you’ve got guys that can step in and not miss a beat. I believe this will be the strongest secondary Wisconsin has had in a long, long time, and I am really excited to see what they can do.

Where will this position group be worse than last season?

Personally, I don’t think this group will be worse but I do worry that sometimes they lack the speed to cover really talented players. You only ever seem to see it against Ohio State, but that small difference in speed always seems to bite the Badgers. Will that be the case this year? We’ll see early on in the season when the Badgers take on a speedy receiver like Whop Philyor of Indiana in their opener.

The only other thing I worry about with this group is how they respond to not being on the field if they get beaten out. With so much talent, and so much depth, I worry that this group could be upset if they think they should be out there over someone else. I think Leonhard has a strong hold over that and guys know what to expect, but it’s certainly still possible.