MADISON, Wis. If you do the math, it isn't difficult to spot Wisconsin's perceived weak link in the defense as the 2013 football season approaches. Six of the Badgers' front seven will be back. One of the Badgers' back four returns.
When opponents study the tape, they're sure to salivate at the prospect of facing an inexperienced secondary. But Badgers safety Dezmen Southward the lone returning starter in that secondary kindly offers a message to those teams that believe they will easily succeed in taking shots down the field.
Bring it on.
"Come after us," Southward said following Wednesday's spring practice. "We'll show you we're ready to play. I think you can say that about any team. Who's going to hide four DBs? That's the craziest thing I've heard in my life. If teams want to come down the field and challenge us, we'll be ready, and I think they'll change their gameplan after a couple times."
Southward, a 6-foot-2, 214-pound redshirt senior, is not one to spew false bravado. His talk comes from a place of great confidence because he has seen what his teammates in the secondary can offer.
Redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary and redshirt junior Peniel Jean will enter the season as Wisconsin's starting cornerbacks. Both saw limited action last season as backups to Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith, who have since graduated. But Hillary and Jean have quickly taken to the scheme put forth by first-year head coach Gary Andersen and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
"I think we complement each other well," Hillary said of his on-field relationship with Jean. "We kind of feed off each other and play off each other's emotions. If he makes a play, I'm running up to him high-fiving and vice versa. We definitely always play off each other to have that good chemistry."
Hillary, a 5-11, 187-pounder, played in all 14 games last season, primarily in nickel packages for the Badgers. He tallied 23 tackles and two pass deflections. His best game came against UTEP last September when he registered eight tackles.
Jean (5-11, 188 pounds) has appeared in 19 career games over two seasons with 24 tackles and three pass breakups. He suffered a broken foot last season and was limited to just five games.
Hillary said he learned having a short memory as a cornerback would be a key to success. Last season, for example, Hillary was beaten for a game-deciding overtime touchdown against Michigan State when quarterback Andrew Maxwell delivered a perfect back-shoulder strike to Bennie Fowler.
"You're going to make some plays and then you might give some plays up," Hillary said. "But you can't let those bad plays determine how you play the rest of the game."
Southward described Hillary as a talented cover corner with athleticism and called Jean the toughest player he's seen since Wisconsin cornerback Antonio Fenelus finished in 2011.
The likely fourth starter in Wisconsin's secondary next season has yet to arrive on campus. Junior college transfer Donnell Vercher is expected to fill the other safety slot, taking over for graduated senior Shelton Johnson. Vercher tallied 23 tackles and eight interceptions at Fresno (Calif.) City College to earn All-American honors.
With Vercher, Hillary and Jean on the field, there could be some growing pains. But Southward said they could all make up for a lack of significant Big Ten game experience.
"There will be situations in a game that guys have never been in," said Southward, who recorded 69 tackles last season with 18 tackles for loss and five pass deflections.
"Maybe we're on the 20-yard line and it's a two-minute drill and we need to get a stop. We don't really have any guys who have been in that situation, but the fact that these guys really love the game, they want to succeed and want to play really hard and give it everything they have, I think you'll see a lot of that experience factor be thrown out the window because of how hard they play. And how well we'll know our defense."
When Wisconsin takes the field next season, fans will see a different alignment from the secondary. One of Andersen's first orders of business when he took over the program in December was to implement a defensive scheme that focused more on aggressive man coverage. Under former coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers operated out of a Cover 4 defense in which players in the secondary played off their man and defended areas of the field.
The new philosophy has Wisconsin's defensive backs licking their chops.
"That's something that you love and want to do as a corner," Hillary said.
Added Southward: "It gives me a chance to show that I'm a well-rounded player. I can't ask for anything more than that."
Yes, Wisconsin's secondary lacks the same type of experience the Badgers brought a season ago, when they ranked 18th nationally in passing defense. And yes, that means teams very well may take more shots down the field against a group of players eager to prove they belong. But Southward and company sure isn't sweating it right now.
"I think it's natural for people on the outside to panic a little bit," Southward said. " Oh we only have one senior and a bunch of redshirt freshmen, redshirt sophomores.' It'll be nothing to worry about. Anywhere you go, there will be people that leave and somebody has to step up. It'll be no different here. I think you'll see we have a lot more talent than people understand, and it'll be showcased."
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