University of Wisconsin junior cornerback Peniel Jean is a firm believer everything happens for a reason.
Still, Jean was searching for that reason after suffering a broken foot eight or nine days before the season opener last year.
After a solid 2011 season as the Badgers’ nickel back, Jean was feeling even better coming out of fall camp a year ago.
“I felt like I was out of the roof,” he said. “I had the most confidence, because I felt I had put in so much work in the offseason with the other DBs. I had so much confidence, I was going to excel, no matter what I was going to.”
Instead, redshirt freshman Darius Hillary was thrust into the nickel back role, a position he held all season. With seniors Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie as the starting cornerbacks in every game, Jean estimated he played about 20 snaps on defense after returning from the injury.
Yet, Jean, who didn’t have a redshirt available after taking one as a freshman in 2010, refuses to view it as a lost season.
“We were winning games, that’s all that matters,” he said. “When my name was called, I would step up, no matter what.”
Jean spent the season doing everything he could to mentor Hillary, while also providing another set of eyes during games for Smith and Cromartie in regards to what opposing receivers were doing.
At some point in that process, Jean began to understand the reason he believes he was going through that adversity.
“I felt like it was a big step for me to become a leader off the field,” he said.
That’s important because Jean is being asked to lead a group of young and inexperienced cornerbacks.
“I’m inexperienced myself, but I’m the oldest in the group,” Jean said. “We all need to be leaders somewhat ... but from the corner position I’m trying to be a leader, whether it’s catching from the Jugs (machine) off the field or fixing stuff we did wrong in practice every day after practice.”
The Badgers don’t have a cornerback with starting experience. Junior Devin Gaulden, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament last fall, underwent more surgery recently, according to a post on his Twitter account.
Jean and Hillary have worked exclusively with the No. 1 defense. Redshirt freshman Hugs Etienne, who missed last season following shoulder surgery, and true freshman Sojourn Shelton, an early enrollee, are the second tandem.
Going into the spring, UW coach Gary Andersen said cornerbacks faced one of the biggest adjustments of any position under the new coaching staff due to an emphasis being placed on man-to-man coverage.
The Badgers played mostly “quarters” coverage last year, in which each of the four defensive backs was responsible for a quarter of the field. But within that zone were some man-to-man principles — similar to a matchup zone in basketball.
“There was a lot of quarters played last year,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “When you play quarters coverage, which we are, on top of man coverage, which we’re aiming to do, it’s just more man.”
Jean, 5-foot-11, 188 pounds, has no reservations about the emphasis on man coverage in the new 3-4 scheme, which also will rely on pressure and blitzes.
“This scheme allows us to be in the receivers’ faces more because we’re relying on the pressure,” Jean said. “It’s not like we’re going to be covering somebody for 10 seconds.
“They’re only asking for three seconds, four seconds (of coverage). The structure of the defense is that we all have to play together. It’s not an individual game.”
One of the keys with press coverage is disrupting a receiver’s route at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s not necessarily being physical at the line of scrimmage, just making the receiver get off his route,” Jean said. “It’s not necessarily getting hands on the receiver.
“If you can make him re-route, that’s enough, because we’re relying on the pressure and we’re relying on the corners to stay on top of their men and not let anything over our heads.”
Jean has especially enjoyed the work he gets going against senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who is one of the top returning receivers in the Big Ten Conference.
“If you can guard him, you should be able to guard everyone else because he got behind a lot of corners (last) season,” Jean said after a recent practice.
“Me and him were going at it all day, pressing ... if he beat me one time, I’d be like, ‘Next time you come to the line, I’m going to get in your face and win the next one.’ That’s great competition.”