There's no denying that Wisconsin redshirt senior Dezmen Southward is an athlete -- his 6-foot-2, 214-pound frame makes him a prime candidate to be a disruptive force on any athletic playing field.
Now an anchor for Wisconsin's secondary at free safety, Southward didn't always roam the football field looking to disrupt opposing offenses. Back at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Southward did take advantage of his stature, playing almost every sport. Except football, that is.
The fifth-year senior was a basketball star before college, as he was a three-year captain and two-time MVP for the Raiders before he took his talents to the football field in his senior year. Even then, Southward lined up at defensive end for a St. Thomas Aquinas squad that proceeded to win a state championship.
Now in his fifth year at Wisconsin, Southward has blossomed into a pillar for the Badgers' defense -- a stature that seemed far out of reach his freshman year at UW.
"I can't even put it into words," Southward said. "When I got here, I didn't know anything football, any of the terminology. I didn't know some of the small penalties and rules. So, I've come full circle. I completely understand the game. I couldn't even begin to put it into a single word how much I've changed and how much I've learned."
Southward is coming off of his best season yet, having started all 14 games for the Rose Bowl-bound Badgers, recording 69 tackles and two interceptions.
While 2012 was a banner year for Southward's production and playing time, the veteran now has his eye set on new goals.
"I was happy because I got a chance to get out there and really show what I can do," Southward said. "But I'm not satisfied to the extent where I want to come out here and take it to the next level, be that much of a better player, leader and playmaker for the team. I know I can do it."
Southward enters spring practice as the secondary's most accomplished player after the Badgers lost defensive backs Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson and Devin Smith to graduation.
As the secondary is largely inexperienced, the newly remade Wisconsin coaching staff under head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is look toward veterans like Southward to help bring the young group along.
"With Dez, he's obviously got playing experience, so the expectations heighten for him to do his job, take on his responsibility and do it consistently to be an example for the guys," said secondary coach Ben Strickland, one of only two assistants to return after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas.
Southward isn't shying away from those expectations, especially the ones regarding his leadership for a secondary in which he figures to begin the season as the lone senior.
"I think I was starting to be become a leader at the end of last season and that's something that's rolled right into winter conditioning," Southward said. "It's not one of those things like the ‘rah rah' thing. Ninety percent of the time, it's leading by example and showing these guys how to do things the right way and follow me."
Along with Southward, players like Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean who have some in-game experience will be expected to pick up the slack in the defensive backfield.
Hillary, stepping in to play cornerback this season, was forced to play at the safety position last year. It was then that the redshirt sophomore got his first taste of Southward's leadership on the field.
"Last year, when I had to transition to free safety and was backing him up, he was the first one to come to me in offseason," Hillary said. "We watched film together and he told me a couple tricks of the trade, so I definitely think he helped me out a lot."
Southward's continuing his work with younger players, including freshman Reggie Mitchell who has been getting reps at Hillary's old strong safety spot.
"Especially, Dezmen is [being a leader for us]," Jean said. "They moved Reggie Mitchell to safety and he's up there watching film with Dezmen all the time and trying to get better. It's important because it builds [the younger player's] confidence, knowing that this person actually cares and wants them to get better, because you're only as good as your two-deep. If someone goes down, you're confident that guy is going to get in and get the job done."
With all of his energy focused on getting better as a player, ensuring the secondary successfully translates into the Andersen era is a prime goal for Southward. But while there's no doubt he has his sights set on a successful final year at Wisconsin, Southward, just like every other effective player, has aspirations to take that ability and leadership to the next level.
"Everyone wants to grow up and play at the highest level," Southward said. "In order for me to be most successful this season, I have to just hone in on what I'm doing now and if I do those things, everything else will take care of itself and the NFL will be there. But to get up in those things now, you might miss out on some big opportunities in college and I don't want to do that."