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Post spring practice thoughts: cornerbacks

A pair of younger corners had solid springs, elevating the depth at cornerback.

Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

The Wisconsin Badgers football team ended their spring practice period on Friday. After missing out on spring practice last year, having an extra 15 sessions proved to be extremely useful for Paul Chryst’s group. The Badgers didn’t have a spring game, or anything like that, but we were still able to glean a decent amount of information from the open practices and media availability.

Now that spring practice has concluded, here are some news and notes for the cornerback position.

While nothing is set in stone, here is our best guess at what the cornerback depth chart will look like heading into fall camp.

Post Spring Depth Chart

Starter: Caesar Williams
Backup: Dean Engram
Starter: Faion Hicks
Backup: Alexander Smith

Spring standouts

New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat may have entered his first spring with the Badgers back in April, but he was fortunate to have two experienced upperclassmen to rely on. Both Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks have had great springs according to media availability. While the continued progression of the projected starters was wonderful to see/hear, the story of the spring for the cornerback room was the play of Alexander Smith and Dean Engram.

Smith and Engram have each seen playing time over the course of their careers in Madison, but this spring was noteworthy. Poteat praised the two:

“I think they are ready, they want to get on the field. They have been doing a good job of handling the role since Faion has been limited. They both have taken on the role of playing corner and nickel. They’re doing a good job of retaining the information and seeing where they fit in the defense... I think they’re doing a really good job for us, those are two of the guys that are really tough mentally.”

Both players acknowledged that they are much more consistent with their technique, and it appears to have paid major dividends for the two younger corners. Expect Smith and Engram to have a role in the defense in 2021. With Hicks and Williams also expected to exhaust their eligibility after this season, the emergence of some younger corners was desperately needed.

Questions we still have

With Dean Engram and Alexander Smith both jumping out with great springs, there are two questions that still remain.

  1. Which player will play the nickel?
  2. What about Donte Burton, Semar Melvin and Deron Harrell?

The Badgers use nickel coverage most of the time, especially against pass happy teams. Both Smith and Engram have the ability to help out as the third corner, and will likely see playing time, but who locks down that all important spot is still to be determined.

While it appears that Engram and Smith have the inside track to trot out with the starters come September, three other cornerbacks could still emerge.

Burton, Melvin and Harrell have all played meaningful snaps for the Badgers in the past. Both Melvin and Harrell were unavailable this spring, making the fall a major opportunity for them to get back in the race. Burton was available in the spring, but he came on at the end of last year, and could shake up the competition if he can regain the momentum he had late in 2020.

There are some younger cornerbacks (Al Ashford, Amaun Williams, Max Lofy) that could also factor into the equation, but as of right now the trio of Burton, Melvin and Harrell are the most likely to compete with Engram/Smith for playing time.