With an entirely new front seven on defense, Wisconsin football will need to rely on its secondary to provide a stabilizing influence in 2014.
The Badgers finished 17th in the nation last season in pass defense, allowing an average of 202 yards per game through the air. Wisconsin’s opponents completed just 53 percent of their passes, the 13th-best figure in the FBS.
However, UW intercepted just nine passes last year. The defense was also shredded several times against good quarterbacks. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller completed 68 percent of his passes and had four touchdowns. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg had 339 passing yards and four touchdowns as the Badgers fell in the regular season finale. In the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, Connor Shaw had just three incompletions en route to 312 yards and three touchdowns.
Performances like this cannot happen against strong competition. Fortunately for Wisconsin, the secondary only loses one starter from last season, safety Dezmen Southward. Several key players will return with another year of experience.
Sophomore Sojourn Shelton had a fantastic debut season. Coming in as a four-star recruit, Shelton proved to be the secondary’s biggest playmaker. He recorded four interceptions whereas no one else had more than one. Shelton started 11 games and proved he could excel as a shutdown corner for the Badgers.
On the other side of the field, redshirt junior Darius Hillary will return to his starting role. He started all 13 games last season, recording 30 tackles with one fumble recovery and interception. While 2013 was his first year as a starter, Hillary has plenty of experience in the defensive backfield, having played in all 14 games in his redshirt freshman season of 2012.
Redshirt senior Peniel Jean should be Wisconsin’s nickelback. Though he has never started a game in his collegiate career, he has made 31 appearances and recorded 31 tackles.
Relative unknowns whose roles could expand this season include redshirt junior A.J. Jordan, who appeared in all 13 games last year; redshirt sophomore Dare Ogunbowale, who played in eight games; and junior T.J. Reynard, a former junior college transfer who saw action in seven games in his first year at Wisconsin.
Redshirt junior Michael Caputo will reprise his starter’s role at free safety. Appearing in all 13 games and starting 12 of them, Caputo recorded a total of 63 tackles, the second-highest number on the team behind Chris Borland’s 112.
Wisconsin must replace Southward at strong safety. Redshirt sophomores Nate Hammon and Leo Musso are the early favorites. Hammon played in 12 games last year, starting one, while recording 24 tackles and one sack. Listed at 6’1, he is a full two inches taller than Musso.
Musso also appeared in 12 games in 2013 and recorded 15 tackles. He was one of just six Badger defenders to record an interception, which he did against Tennessee Tech.
The rest of the safety position is thin. There are four other safeties listed on the roster. Sophomore Joe Ferguson has very little experience and redshirt freshman Keelon Brookins will begin his first season of play. Meanwhile, Vonte Jackson converted from running back to safety and is coming off three torn ACLs. Michael Trotter is still listed as a safety on the team’s website but he converted to linebacker during spring practice.
After impressing the coaching staff as a quarterback in spring practice, it is doubtful that Tanner McEvoy ever returns to playing safety even if he does not beat out incumbent Joel Stave as the starter under center. While cornerback has several backup options with actual game experience, the safety position has more questions heading into the 2014 campaign.