UW football: Safeties Johnson and Southward share a memorable play and a lot more

2011-11-11T04:15:00Z UW football: Safeties Johnson and Southward share a memorable play and a lot moreTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 | Twitter: @TomMulhernWSJ madison.com

In some ways, the football careers of University of Wisconsin safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward have been linked ever since one memorable kickoff return by Arizona State during the 2010 season.

People still mention the play to Southward. There is something about all-out effort and hustle that resonates with fans.

"That was a great play," Southward said. "I didn't realize how big it would be until a couple of months later."

To refresh memories: Arizona State's Kyle Middlebrooks looked like he was going to return a kickoff for a touchdown late in the first half. But Southward ran Middlebrooks down from behind, slowing him just enough for Johnson to make the tackle one yard short of the end zone as time expired in the first half.

It was a pivotal play in both a 20-19 victory and the Badgers' 11-2 season.

Not only are Johnson and Southward linked by that play, they have competed every day at practice for the starting job at strong safety, going back to the spring.

"Basically. I love it," Johnson said of Southward nipping at his heels all season. "You've got to come out here and perform every day. It doesn't allow you to get complacent."

The two are also the expected starters next season after senior free safety Aaron Henry departs. Fans got a sneak preview last week against Purdue after Henry went out with an ankle injury.

Johnson moved to free safety and Southward came in at strong safety. Henry said he hopes to play at Minnesota on Saturday, but if he can't it will be Johnson and Southward again.

"I'm really proud of Shelton, the way he went over to free safety and handled it," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "Our defense played pretty well in the second half."

Southward has excited the coaches with his potential since he arrived. He was a standout basketball player growing up and played only one year of football at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

But defensive coordinator Chris Ash placed a moratorium recently on any more talk about Southward's potential.

"I don't want guys to have potential," Ash said. "I want guys to be football players. Everyone talks about Dez's potential. It's time to grow out of that. I'm tired of hearing about potential. He's starting to become a better football player."

Southward, who started against Nebraska and Indiana when Johnson was slowed by a calf injury, thinks he is starting to turn potential into performance.

"I think I'm definitely to the point where I don't want to talk about being one of those guys who has all of this potential, because I think I'm starting to show it," he said. "You don't just start against Nebraska and play well without starting to go toward your potential."

The start against Nebraska, which came on Southward's 21st birthday, was a monumental moment in his career since he played with few assignment errors.

"It was huge, playing well against a team like Nebraska," Southward said. "They're a proven team. They really run the ball hard. Showing I can execute my assignments, everything I learned during the week, I can take to the field, is huge for me going forward."

Southward's teammates have always marveled at his athleticism, although they are also getting accustomed it.

"We're all used to it," Johnson said. "Dez is just the chosen one out here."

And what does that make Johnson? "That just makes me the smart one," he joked.

Even with their constant competition, Southward and Johnson remain friends and have only grown closer. The defensive backs are a close-knit group, helping them overcome the adversity of back-to-back losses on late desperation touchdown passes.

"Before we started competing for the strong safety spot, we didn't talk as much," Southward said. "Now, we're definitely closer, we talk outside of football.

"It's not one of those things where I don't like this guy because we're competing, we all love each other. That's what's really helped us overcome some adversity."

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