Before heading off to Chicago last week for the Big Ten Conference media days, free safety Aaron Henry saw a picture of himself from his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin.
"It looked like two completely different people, like someone on one of those Bowflex commercials," Henry said of before-and-after photos for the home gym system. "I was a skinny freshman and it looked crazy. I didn't think it was the same person."
These days, the 6-foot Henry, a former cornerback, is looking more like a safety, weighing 210 pounds. But the even bigger changes have been to his mind, not his body.
During the spring and summer, he spent a lot of time working with former Badgers safety Jim Leonhard, whom Henry regards as a football "genius." Due to the NFL lockout, Leonhard, a starter for the New York Jets, spent a lot of time around the UW facilities.
"(Leonhard) showed me some of the Jets stuff and the play call and the way they do things," Henry said of twice-weekly video sessions. "What I should look for in the deep middle and what I should look for when I'm playing this coverage or that coverage. Just giving me a brief overview of things to expect on certain downs and certain situations."
In his first year as a starter in 2010, Henry made some huge plays, scoring three defensive touchdowns on a pair of interception returns and a fumble return.
"We actually watched, before the first (spring) practice, a highlight tape of the defense to get hyped up," freshman backup safety Michael Trotter said. "Probably 80 percent of the plays were (Henry)."
But Henry is hardly satisfied. After making the transition from cornerback to safety as a sophomore, he started 13 games last season and was named second-team All-Big Ten. He led the team in fumbles recovered (three) and was second in interceptions (two) and tied for third in pass breakups (seven).
His goal now is to make the players around him better, which is what Leonhard did for the Badgers from 2001 to '04.
"Being back there at free safety, if I can get the call right and line up and play, that's when I'm at my best," Henry said. "If I can get other guys lined up, where they don't have to think or worry about things, they can play their best as well."
The Badgers return three former starters in the secondary: Henry and senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus each have 18 career starts, while senior cornerback Devin Smith has 14 starts.
Still, memories persist of Texas Christian carving up UW's secondary in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers were forced to play soft zones because they couldn't stay with TCU's receivers in man coverage.
"It was just kind of hard, we were in a lot of cover 3," Fenelus said of a zone that employs three deep defensive backs. "We should have had a lot more breaks (on the ball) and stuff. We were pretty hesitant breaking on those short routes they kept running while we were in cover 3."
Smith and Fenelus were part of the same recruiting class and have been through ups and downs.
Fenelus lost his starting job in 2009 but bounced back and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010. Smith started all 13 games in 2009 but was the nickel back last season and struggled in the Rose Bowl.
"We talk about that a lot, saying we were young, we didn't know too much," Fenelus said of shared experiences with Smith. "We want to make sure that never happens again."
The strong safety job is open and could be one of the best battles in preseason camp. Sophomore Dezmen Southward is one of the best athletes on the team and had a strong finish to the spring. Junior Shelton Johnson has more experience and can play either safety spot.
Meanwhile, Henry will be one of the leaders on defense and could be one of the top safeties in the country, especially following the Leonhard tutorials.
"There would be some times on the field, (Leonhard) would make adjustments before the coaches made them," Henry said. "When you've got a player like that ... he made all the rest of (the defense) play up to a high level."