By every useful metric, Wisconsin had an excellent secondary last season. Sporting three senior starters, the Badgers ranked seventh in the nation giving up just 5.8 yards per attempt and 18th giving up 193.6 yards per game. They allowed opponents to complete just 55 percent of their passes, despite a pass rush that was so-so.
As you might expect, the 2012 secondary was a big improvement over the 2011 iteration. There are two plays sticking in your mind, and you'll be happy to note the numbers justify the acid reaction in your gut. The 2011 version ranked 80th in the nation on passing downs (defined as 2nd-and-8 or longer, or 3rd/4th-and-5 or longer) according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ metric, and improved to 16th last season. That improvement reflects very well on the job that Ben Strickland did in his first year as a full-time position coach. It also raises some concern about a 2013 secondary that returns just Dezmen Southward from the group that performed so well last season.
How well Wisconsin defends the pass next season may depend on the big guys. Head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda have teased creative blitz packages since arriving on campus, and there is enough experienced talent to expect a strong front seven next season, even with the abrupt departure of David Gilbert. A smooth transition from the relatively vanilla schemes of Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge will go a long way toward easing whatever growing pains come from a young group of starters.
Which isn't to say that this year's secondary can't improve on the 2012 version. The Badgers were better at preventing long pass plays last season, but perhaps at the expense of creating turnovers. Wisconsin did not record an interception until the sixth game of the season, and its eight total picks on the year ranked just 92nd in FBS. A greater emphasis on pass rushing and regular progression to the mean should drive that number up, not to mention the fact that Wisconsin has some solid talent at the position.
Wisconsin's recent recruiting classes have placed a heavy emphasis on the defensive backfield, as you can see immediately on the projected two-deep. Three players with freshman eligibility -- Reggie Mitchell, Hugs Etienne and Sojourn Shelton -- are in position for significant playing time. Expect Wisconsin's secondary to take us for a wild ride at times this season, but don't be surprised if it becomes a strong unit by year's end.
CB1: Peniel Jean, 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, RS junior
FS1: Reggie Mitchell, 6-foot, 183 pounds, RS freshman
SS1: Dezmen Southward, 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, RS senior
CB2: Darius Hillary, 5-foot-11, 187 pounds, RS sophomore
CB3: Hugs Etienne, 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, RS freshman
FS2: Michael Trotter, 6-foot, 210 pounds, RS junior
SS2: Michael Caputo, 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, RS sophomore
CB4: Sojourn Shelton, 5-foot-9, 162 pounds, freshman
Wisconsin has a ton of bodies to throw at whatever potential problems it encounters in the secondary this season. Currently, there are more players listed at defensive back than at any other position on Wisconsin's spring roster. Lots of bodies breeds lots of competition, which pushes the veterans and brings the younger players up to speed much quicker.
And truth be told, Wisconsin isn't as inexperienced as you might think. Peniel Jean entered the 2012 season as the Badgers' nickel corner, but a broken foot sidelined him early in the year. Darius Hillary saw playing time at safety and corner in all 14 games last season due to injuries to Shelton Johnson and Devin Gaulden. Jean and Hillary are expected to man the starting corner spots, and Gaulden could push for playing time from Week 1 forward if he is properly recovered from his ACL injury by fall camp.
Then there is Southward, who has a full season of starting experience under his belt and could be prime for an outstanding season. Safeties coach Bill Busch has been very high on Southward, who is doing all of the important leader-y things that a senior player should. Southward is long, athletic and a potential star if everything goes right this season.
God help them if injuries wreak havoc on the secondary. While it is very encouraging that Hugs Etienne and Sojourn Shelton have stepped up this spring to nab supporting roles, there hasn't been much competition with Gaulden out after a undergoing another round of surgery recently. The rest of the depth chart at cornerback includes true freshmen Jakarrie Washington and Keelon Brookins, redshirt sophomore Terrance Floyd and a bunch of a walk-ons.
The safety spot next to Southward is also a concern. Reggie Mitchell vaulted past several more experienced players to take over a starting spot this spring, but he still has zero game appearances to his name. Junior college transfer Donnell Vercher is expected to come in during the summer and compete for the starting job, if not take it over from Day 1. He is yet another unknown quantity, however.
Overall, Wisconsin may not have a more if-filled position group than the secondary. They have depth in numbers, but there is a big dropoff in experience from the starters to the backups. The good news is that Wisconsin has promising athletes, and the unit appears to be in good hands under Strickland and Busch. The support of a potentially top-notch front seven helps, as well.
On paper, the secondary appears to be Wisconsin's most likely Achilles' heel next season. If the unit is able to play above expectations, however, a good Wisconsin defense could easily be one of the best in recent memory.