It started with the first walk-through of preseason camp for the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense.
Ross Kolodziej is a former UW defensive lineman who played seven years in the NFL for four teams. He is currently a graduate assistant coach on defense for the Badgers.
“After our first day, our first walk-through, he said, ‘That’s an NFL walk-through,’ the way guys were communicating and talking about things,” junior middle linebacker Chris Borland said.
“They hadn’t even been coached up about it yet. It’s exciting to see because that translates to playing the game.”
UW coach Bret Bielema said early in camp the communication on defense was better than with any of his previous teams during his seven years as head coach. That sentiment was echoed by Borland.
“I think that’s what we’ve done best defensively all camp is communicate,” he said.
Of course, doing it during practice inside an empty Camp Randall Stadium, and doing it when the place is full and 80,000 fans are trying to make things imposing for the visiting offense, are entirely different.
Communication always seems good in camp, but the big test starts on Saturday against Northern Iowa.
“A lot of people don’t realize that, too,” senior strong safety Shelton Johnson said. “They think crowd noise can just affect the offense, but it can put a damper on the defense, too, if we don’t take care of our stuff.”
The defensive players have talked about communication so much the last two seasons, one would think they are all majoring in it. Johnson said after all of that talk it is becoming second nature.
It starts with having an experienced defense. The Badgers have just six defensive starters returning from last year’s Rose Bowl team, but a couple of the “new” starters — like senior cornerback Devin Smith and junior defensive end David Gilbert — are returning from injuries and started previously.
The two-deep roster is filled almost entirely with experienced players. The only redshirt freshmen listed on defense on the first two-deep were Michael Caputo and Darius Hillary — and they are co-backups at the two safety spots with sophomore Michael Trotter.
“Just coming in, a lot of us have a lot of experience, so we know how important communication can be,” Johnson said. “We’re pretty confident in our responsibilities and where we’re supposed to be.”
The defense still carries a scar from last season to remind it of the importance. A communication breakdown led to the busted coverage against Ohio State and the Buckeyes’ game-winning 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left.
“Ohio State was definitely the highlight of the miscommunication era,” Johnson said.
He also recalled communication issues against Nebraska and Purdue, but those didn’t get remembered as much because the Badgers won those games.
“But when you (give up) big plays like against Ohio State, it’s like a bright yellow marker that highlights it,” Johnson said.
Co-coordinator Chris Ash is going into his second year running the defense. Eliminating the big plays allowed last season is a big focus, though Ash said communication was just one part of that.
Still, it’s one of the essential building blocks of any good defense.
“Communication doesn’t require talent,” Ash said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we’ve got to master, the things that require no talent. That’s one of them.”
It sounds easy, but it involves more than just talking.
“You can’t blabber nonsense, just to make noise,” Borland said. “You need to shout and be clear about something that’s important. Say what you see because maybe the other guy didn’t see it.”
It also involves film work and recognizing what an offense is doing with motions and shifts, then relaying that information to the rest of the defense.
“It’s taking what we see in the film room … and talking before the snap about what could possibly happen,” junior free safety Dezmen Southward said. “It can make you that much faster when the ball is snapped. When you’re faster, you hit harder, you’re there (quicker) and fewer yards are gained. Communication is huge.”
Said Ash: “You have to process it first before you can communicate it. The great ones, they can process it faster.”
Communication has been good in camp despite a new starter in Southward in a key position and a revolving door at all three linebacker spots while coaches were cautious with the starters involving injuries.
Now, it’s a matter of doing it when the games start and the pressure can cause throats to get dry.
“Especially when the bullets start flying, your tongue feels like a ball of yarn sometimes,” Johnson said.
That’s why Ash wants to see how things go in games before declaring the communication improved.
“Out here, it’s easy,” he said of the practice field. “On game day in the environment of Camp Randall Stadium, it’s a whole ’nother thing. … We try to stress it, but you never know until you get to gameday.”