The Wisconsin Badgers certainly have a new fire under them heading into the 2023 season under new head coach Luke Fickell and his coaching staff, with recruiting getting off to a strong start, while the team has kept the fanbase excited with weekly videos from the social media department.
However, what matters the most is the factor yet to be seen: on-the-field play, and that comes with questions, specifically on the defensive end, where the Badgers will have to replace multiple starters in the secondary and the defensive line.
But, Wisconsin is set at the most important position in their secondary: boundary cornerback, as starter Alexander Smith is returning for a sixth season, and should be poised for a breakout season with how Cincinnati ran their defense under Luke Fickell.
After watching film of the Bearcats defense, it’s clear that Cincinnati likes to operate out of 3-3-5 fronts or 3-2-6 fronts, favoring a deep secondary, while utilizing various blitz packages with their linebackers to confuse opposing defenses.
Now, a 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 may not be the best formation for the personnel that Wisconsin has, given the talented players they acquired along the defensive line, such as Temple’s Darian Varner and Michigan State’s Jeff Pietrowski, which could revert to some more four-down looks to get a more prominent pass-rush, but the Badgers should retain the cornerback philosophy that Cincinnati carried under Fickell.
The Bearcats played press-man with their main boundary corner in 2022, JaQuan Sheppard, while playing off-coverage with their secondary corner, which fit into their Cover-3 or man-coverage schemes.
Being Wisconsin’s clear-cut No. 1 cornerback, Alexander Smith will be tasked to play that press-man boundary role, and it’s a perfect fit for his play style, which Badgers fans saw glimpses of last season toward the end of the year.
Smith, standing at 5’11, 180-pounds last season, operated best when played in press-man, where he could utilize his solid hand placement at the line of scrimmage, causing separation issues with receivers, forcing quarterbacks to rely on shorter gains or throw to the opposite side of the field.
With the way Cincinnati ran coverages, Smith should be tasked with specifically covering the boundary and will be allowed to play aggressively, as the scheme creates different looks on the backend, with help allocated on intermediate and deep in-breaking routes.
Smith also has a chance to get stronger this offseason, as he should be near full strength come spring practices after injuries limited the beginning of his 2022 season, thwarting a potential breakout season.
With greater strength, Smith can fill better in the running game, while being able to use that physicality to complement his hands at the line of scrimmage, allowing himself to create more favorable matchups, while also earning a better ability to contest at the catch point, which was a huge issue for Badgers’ defensive backs in 2023.
Smith shouldn’t only be a force on the field in 2023, but also off the field in mentoring some of Wisconsin’s younger defensive backs.
New cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes spoke highly of Smith’s leadership early on, even joking that the defensive back has essentially been a coach thus far.
“He’s kind of like my assistant coach a little bit,” Haynes said, via 247’s Michael Hogan. “There are times when he’ll text our group text, and it’s him getting those guys together... ‘We’re going to do this on this day, this on that day. I am over here working out. Anyone else want to come over to work out with me?’ He’s an awesome leader. We have some experience, but we’re a young group. He’s done a great job.”
Smith also earned significant praise from fellow cornerback and former Badger Justin Clark, who exclaimed that the sixth-year defensive back will break out in 2023.
“He came back and played well [last season after a hamstring injury],” Clark said. “I’m expecting this year, it’s going to be the year. It’s going to be like his breakout year. You stay healthy, it’s going to be fun to see him.”
Smith has battled playing time issues and injuries in his career. But, he’s healthy entering his final collegiate season, and his playstyle is a good match for Wisconsin’s defensive scheme under Luke Fickell’s staff, poising him for a breakout season in 2023.