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Sojourn Shelton growing out of freshman mistakes

Wisconsin's true freshman cornerback doesn't feel like a rookie anymore, and he's beginning to not look like one, either.

Jamie Sabau

MADISON -- He's carried the same title since the spring, and it'll stick through the winter, but Sojourn Shelton doesn't view himself as a freshman anymore.

The 5-foot-9, 172-pound cornerback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has passed the jitters phase, if there ever was one in his case. Even before his initial workouts in the spring and experience as a starter over the Badgers' first six games, Shelton never wanted to classify himself that way.

"That was one of my goals before I came in, was not to come in with the mentality of a freshman," Shelton said. "But the process of being a freshman, especially when you come in early, that title is pretty long. It holds on to you."

His recent play on the field has begun to look more and more like the work of a veteran, too. His third interception of the season was the first of many big plays for Wisconsin's defense in a surprising rout of Northwestern last week.

"Not a whole lot of true freshmen have started in this program at the corner position. He took it with tremendous grace and got better as the year's gone on. -Ben Strickland on Sojourn Shelton

"Obviously, he was kind of thrown in there," Wisconsin cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland said. "Not a whole lot of true freshmen have started in this program at the corner position. He took it with tremendous grace and got better as the year's gone on.

"Physically, he had the tools, but the mental part of the game, he's continued to develop better football knowledge, a better understanding of what teams are trying to do and how they're trying to attack you."

Sure, there have been mistakes. His coverage against Arizona State drew multiple pass interference flags, and Ohio State was able to convert a deflating long touchdown pass at the end of the first half because of Shelton's dropped interception the play before.

But his talent has been apparent from the start, and the consistency of his play in recent weeks only adds credence to the coaching staff's decision to start Shelton as a true freshman, something defensive coordinator Dave Aranda knew was a possibility back in the spring.

"We had a thought that he could (start immediately)," Aranda said. "It's always nice to see him follow through with it. The doors were open for him to sort of walk this way, so to speak. All the credit goes to him, though.

"He's improved, and he's continued to play within himself. He's continuing to absorb the scheme. He's a playmaker, so he has to be able to merge all of those play-making ability and skills that he has with the scheme that we have, and I think he's continued to do that, and the future is bright for him."

Many raised questions about Shelton and the rest of the Badgers' inexperienced cornerback group before the season began, and the true freshman has played a major role in Wisconsin taking the 14th-ranked passing defense into the second half of the season.

Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said Monday that he feels "extremely comfortable" with Shelton on the field, but one could even argue Shelton has become the best cornerback the Badgers can put on the field.

"I think I am (playing my best football), but I think I still have a lot more potential," Shelton said. "There are a lot more things I can work on, so hopefully I can be better."

Getting to this point, as a true freshman starter for one of the Big Ten's best teams, wasn't so easy for Shelton.

He had to add 20-plus pounds to his 5-foot-9 frame in the offseason just to get over 170, and he was still competing with other corners who saw meaningful playing time in key games last season. He never doubted his ability to find the field early in his career, though.

"I have to have confidence because I'm so small," Shelton said. "That's what I think allows me to play up to the big role that (I have). My whole thing was to just keep progressing and keep learning as much as I could so that I could put myself in the position that I'm in now."

Although the first six games of his career haven't been perfect, Shelton still has 3 1/2 more seasons to make his mark on the Badgers' program.

"I think I've played pretty well," Shelton said. "A lot of learning experiences. A lot of things that I know I can grow on. All the mistakes I made in the first half, I just want to make sure I don't make those mistakes. Just the little things, the details I need to work on. That's the focus. Just keep maintaining and building on the game I have right now."