Yes, folks you can almost smell and taste it... We're talking about the start of football season. Thursday is the official Big Ten Media Day and thus the countdown to kickoff begins. We're less than a month away from being able to fire up the grills and break out the coolers full of your beverages of choice. Football season is finally back in the picture.
Because we're so close it's time to unveil our previews in a feature we're calling "Camping with the Badgers."
We'll be breaking down the position groups and the biggest storylines facing each group as we enter fall camp in just a few short days. So, get your gear ready and come camping with us! First up we'll be breaking down one of the most important positions to Wisconsin's success in the 2012 campaign... The secondary.
*Update: Highly touted safety prospect D.J. Singleton will not be with the Badgers this season as he was not academically cleared by the NCAA, but according to Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal Wisconsin is hoping to get him in to school in January.
CB - Marcus Cromartie (RS Sr., 6'1", 188lbs.)
CB - Devin Smith (RS Sr., 5'11", 190lbs.)
S - Dez Southward (RS Jr., 6'2", 210lbs.)
S - Shelton Johnson (RS Sr., 6'0", 200lbs.)
Thoughts on This Unit:
There seems to be this thought that the secondary last season was bad because those two plays stick out (I refuse to mention them by name DAMN IT!!), however look at the numbers and you get a totally different story. The Wisconsin defense ranked 2nd in the B1G last season in passing defense, giving up only 163.6 yards a game, while also ranking 4th in passing defense in all of FBS football according to official NCAA stats. Not exactly indicative of a bad set of defensive backs if you ask me.
As for 2012? Gone from the secondary are rocks Aaron Henry (safety) and Antonio Fenelus (corner back), two big holes for any team to replace in terms of leadership on and off the field. They also need to shake off the bad taste of what happened to them in the Michigan State and Ohio State games last season.
All four of the projected starters in 2012 have starting experience, but they have never started a game as a unit together. This unit has the talent at the top to be an asset. However, if they don't gel quickly or injury strikes the starters down it could be a liability for the 2012 version of the Badgers.
Devin Smith was a preseason All-Big Ten pick by Blue Ribbon magazine entering last season and had a good start to the season, but was lost for the rest of the year following a foot injury early in the season. That gave Marcus Cromartie the chance to start 13 games last year.
However, it wasn't all good from Cromartie with Bielema even stating in the offseason that he thought Wisconsin would've gone undefeated had Smith not been injured. So as long as he comes back fully healthy that could be a lock down spot in the backfield of the defense.
Cromartie showcased a lot of talent, recording 47 tackles, recovering a fumble and having 3 passes defensed last year. But, he was also very inconsistent and must be more sure of himself and his assignments this year if he wants to stay a starter.
The place that excites the coaching staff the most is at the safety positions and it's understandable as both Southward and Johnson are athletic safeties with a lot of promise. They both had time as a starter last season with Johnson starting 12 games last season and recording 54 tackles, a team best 4 INT's (tied with the departed Henry & Fenelus), and a 2nd best 8 passes defensed. Southward on the other hand saw action in all 14 games, starting 3 and recording 35 tackles with 2 passes defensed. Both have experience and that should help make up for the loss of Henry.
Other Players to Watch:
- Reggie Mitchell (CB): When we spoke to Allen Trieu of Scout.com last week he mentioned him as someone to watch as he really impressed and has a college body type already entering camp. It will be interesting to see what happens because there is a lot of talent in front of him, but it's all unproven, so he's got a chance to move up the depth chart with a good fall camp.
- Michael Trotter (S): He did enough last season to be in the two deep and by all indications had a good spring. He's versatile and could be someone that steps in and you don't even notice he's in there, which is a good thing for a safety.
- Peniel Jean (CB): He got the most work outside of the starters last season and showed pretty well. There are a lot of talented players at the CB position, but he's got the most experience and I will be interested to see his growth heading into just his redshirt sophomore season.
Questions Facing this Unit:
1) How do Johnson and Southward work as a duo at Safety?
- By all indications from spring these two are going to be just fine as the QB's of the defense so to speak. They both received praise from Bielema and both looked good when on the field.
2) Will the talent finally match the production for Cromartie?
- Seriously, has there been a more talented CB that hasn't lived up to expectations at Wisconsin in the past ten years? We all see his talent, it's obvious that he's been blessed with some great skills at the position, but for some reason he has yet to put those skills together with the mental side of the game. If he does it we could be looking at a lockdown corner for 2012, if not we could see him lose playing time as the season goes on.
3) Can Devin Smith get back to All-Big Ten level?
- If he's healthy Smith may be one of the best CB's in the Big Ten, but that's the issue facing him coming into camp. Wisconsin needs him to stay healthy as he is easily their best player in the secondary.
*We'll revisit these questions as camp closes for the Badgers and we have more of an idea of what the unit looks like.