University of Wisconsin defensive backs coach Chris Ash has said all season long, one of the biggest aspects of forcing turnovers is simply being in the right place at the right time.
That certainly described junior cornerback Antonio Fenelus, who had the game of his career last week against Purdue with nine tackles, a 48-yard return of a fumble and a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. Fenelus was the beneficiary of a forced fumble that was credited to safety Aaron Henry and a deflected pass on the interception.
"It described our whole defense," Ash said on Wednesday of the season-high four forced turnovers, after getting seven in the previous eight games. "There wasn't anybody who necessarily went and made a great play. A couple of the interceptions came off tipped balls or breakups by somebody else and there happened to be a guy in the right position, running to the ball and we took advantage of it.
"Antonio picked up a fumble that was on the ground, caused by somebody else. If you're not running to the ball and where you're supposed to be, that stuff doesn't happen."
Fenelus, who is having his best season, has tackled well all year. He is third on the team with 45 tackles.
"I knew early (last) week, the type of offense they have, I was going to have to be able to make some tackles," Fenelus said. "So that's what I did."
It was enough for Fenelus to be recognized as Co-Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten Conference. He is now tied for second in the Big Ten with three interceptions and tied for fifth with eight total pass breakups.
"Antonio is a great example of a guy who works hard and does what he's asked to do all the time," defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "Every single snap, the kid plays hard. Guys like that make a lot of plays."
It's that competitive streak that helps Fenelus (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) overcome his small stature and marginal speed.
"We all want that because the only way you're going to get better is to compete and work," Ash said. "If you do that day in and day out, you're going to naturally get better. He has done that."
Fenelus is one of the most improved players on the team. He had an up-and-down sophomore season, then struggled at the start of spring practices.
"He has come a long way," Ash said. "It's a great credit to him. He has worked to put himself in that position."
While Ash said the recognition was nice, it's not going to have much impact on Fenelus, who has never lacked confidence.
"It's a nice feather in his cap, but that's not what he's out to do," Ash said. "Those things are a result of teams winning. He understands his success comes from other people also. He's pretty level-headed. It's not going to change his approach or demeanor or how he plays."
Valai on the mend
One sure sign of the progress made by senior safety Jay Valai, who was in and out of the lineup with a torn right calf muscle in the last game, was the white practice jersey he wore on Wednesday.
"I'm not wearing a green jersey this week," Valai said of the non-contact jersey worn by injured players. "It's getting better. Not too many complaints."
Valai started against Purdue, then was removed after failing to make a couple plays on a touchdown drive in the first quarter. He returned and played better in the second half.
"Like I told him, I'm going to make decisions that are in the best interest of the team," Ash said. "Yeah, he's a senior. Yeah, he's a captain. His (remaining) opportunities are limited here as we go down the stretch.
"But if there's any doubt him being on the field is going to put the team in jeopardy, I'm not going to do it, no matter how I feel about Jay. We felt he was in good enough shape to help the football team win. If he wasn't, we wouldn't have (played him)."
Ash said he was encouraged by how Valai practiced and said he is running much better.
"He's moving around well and doing some good things," Ash said.
Watt earns accolade
Junior defensive end J.J. Watt was chosen as one of eight semifinalists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation announced.
The award goes to a defensive player who best reflects the attributes of integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity.