MADISON, Wis. When Devin Smith straps on his football gear and jogs through the Camp Randall Stadium tunnel to practice this spring, he can't help but feel like a real life character from the movie Groundhog Day.
He is a senior-to-be, preparing for his final season in a Wisconsin uniform, reliving the exact same scenario he encountered at this time a year ago.
"It's kind of like dj vu a little bit," Smith said. "I went through the same thing last year. I really like it because of the fact that I experienced it all once through the whole spring and the fall process, understanding that it's my last opportunity."
This time, it really is his last opportunity. Smith, one of Wisconsin's starting cornerbacks, was supposed to end his college football career as a senior last season. But that notion vanished when Smith suffered a season-ending broken left foot during the second game of the year against Oregon State. Because the injury occurred early enough in the season, Smith was able to take a medical redshirt, which allowed him another year of eligibility. "I think he wanted to be in two senior pictures," Badgers cornerback Marcus Cromartie joked. "That was just his goal."Smith said he considered himself fortunate not to have used a redshirt season during his freshman year, when he saw limited playing time. Based on the advice of his father, Stephen, a former football player at Memphis, he held on to the redshirt in case of a catastrophic injury.Sure enough, that decision paid off. And the time away from the field last season helped Smith appreciate the opportunity for a do-over."Every day is not promised," said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Smith, a Coppell, Texas native. "You never know when it's going to be your last play. You just have to use your God-given ability every single day and hold nothing back. Because it can be taken away from you like that. "It's just a blessing to be out here and just a blessing to get another opportunity. It could have been a career-ending injury and it wasn't. I'm just very blessed with that."Another blessing came in the opportunity Smith's injury presented to Cromartie, who took over for Smith as a starting cornerback for the rest of the season. That series of events means instead of losing two starting senior cornerbacks in Smith and Antonio Fenelus a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media the last two years Wisconsin now returns Smith and Cromartie, who present one of the more formidable cornerback duos in the Big Ten. "Him going down, I was able to get my feet wet," said Cromartie, a redshirt senior-to-be. "I was able to get some starts under my belt and get experience. I kind of took last year as me just working my way in there, stepping in there and playing my part. Now I kind of find myself as being a leader."Between the two of them, Smith and Cromartie have played in 64 games for the Badgers. Smith has appeared in 39 career games with 16 starts. He has 98 total tackles, 14 pass deflections and three interceptions. Cromartie has played in 25 games, with all 13 of his starts coming last season. "I think everything happens for a reason," Smith said. "You never know how much playing opportunity he would have gotten if I didn't get hurt."Though Smith has healed from the foot injury, he isn't 100 percent healthy just yet. He said a groin injury nagged him for years, but it worsened when he began walking differently with a broken foot, which forced him to undergo surgery in February. He expects to be fully healed by the start of summer workouts in June.And there is also more good news for Wisconsin's secondary.In addition to the experience of Smith and Cromartie, Wisconsin also returns safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson. That pair has combined to play in 62 games with 16 starts, giving the entire starting secondary a total of 126 games played.Wisconsin ranked fourth in the country in passing defense a year ago, allowing 163.6 yards per game, on the way to a Rose Bowl appearance and an 11-3 season. Given the returning talent, there is little reason to believe the Badgers won't be better in the secondary next season. "We're trying to be one of the best secondaries not only in the conference but in the country," Smith said. "We talk about that all the time, how good we can be. We've just got to put the work in. It's not just going to come because we have the experience. We've got to put the work in every single day."Smith is simply glad he has the opportunity to be a part of such an accomplished unit. Again.Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.