If the University of Wisconsin defensive backs want to take a swing at some added motivation for this season, it’s teed up for them.
It’s been easy in preseason camp to find references to the secondary being — potentially — the weakest link on the football team.
Senior strong safety Dezmen Southward, for one, is tired of hearing it.
“Like I tell those guys, everyone likes to call our unit the weakest spot on the team,” Southward said. “Every single time we go out on the field, we need to prove why we’re not. We want to be a strength of the team.”
Southward said the comments don’t motivate him as much as they annoy him.
“It just (ticks) me off, honestly,” Southward said. “Just because I don’t see it at all. I don’t think it’s fair to say this part of the team is a weakness, when you haven’t seen them play yet.
“See them play, then come back and make your judgments, but I guarantee that won’t be the case this season.”
Given Southward is the only returning starter in the secondary, it’s easy to see why fans and the media might jump to that conclusion.
Heading into the second major scrimmage of camp — which will start at approximately 3:30 p.m. today inside Camp Randall Stadium and be open to the public (weather permitting) — UW’s defense has clearly been ahead of the offense.
The front seven on defense have been dominating at times and the depth is such UW coach Gary Andersen considers the top two at every position to be starting-caliber.
But one of the most encouraging things last week for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was how the secondary started to assert itself on Thursday, winning one-on-one battles and coming up with several interceptions.
“There’s starting to be an identity,” Aranda said of the defense. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it a swagger, but I feel like, in the back end, especially, there’s starting to be a semblance of confidence.
“We go to 7-on-7, we’re playing our base stuff and they’re making plays, we had however many picks. All of that stems from guys feeling confident about what is expected of them and what their role in the defense is.”
Aranda wouldn’t say the defense is ahead of schedule, but all of the work put in by players over the summer is paying off. That included 7-on-7 drills during “captain’s practices” and watching instructional videos, which included voiceovers by the position coaches.
“You never really know how it’s going to go,” Aranda said. “I feel like we spent a lot of time in the summer, more than most people — I keep going back to that.
“For example, we had a blitz review session (recently) where we went through about 30 different things, that we’re doing now, that they have on their plates. We went through that in maybe eight, 10 minutes, going from one to the next and there was no hesitation. It kind of shocked me, to be honest, when I saw how they moved in and out of those things, without blinking.”
Redshirt freshman Leo Musso and sophomore Michael Caputo, who has recovered from offseason neck surgery, have a nice battle going to start next to Southward.
Andersen also is encouraged by the progress of the two starting cornerbacks, junior Peniel Jean and sophomore Darius Hillary, though big plays remain an issue.
“My concern on the back end right now is the big play,” Andersen said. “We’re a big-play offense and we take those shots down the field.
“We’re giving up too many of those, but I think the footwork, understanding the scheme … becoming better tacklers, has all improved as they’ve gone through camp.”
Depth at cornerback was another issue, but freshman Sojourn Shelton has built on a strong spring. Even after junior-college transfer T.J. Reynard was sidelined with a knee injury, freshman Jakarrie Washington started to come on last week.
Most of Southward’s snaps in the scrimmages were limited to nickel back, as a precaution to keep him healthy, and the defense still performed well.
“Everybody says, ‘If Dez isn’t back there, the season is pretty much over,’ ” Southward said. “I don’t see that at all.
“I think these two scrimmages (counting the one at the end of practice on Thursday), without me really playing a lot, have shown that. Our guys can play, they know what they’re doing, they’re tough kids. No one’s just heard about them because they haven’t had a chance.”