Keelon Brookins photo

Keelon Brookins (24), cornerback Derrick Tindal (25) and wide receiver Reggie Love (16) celebrate their win over USC in the Holiday Bowl in December.

M.P. KING -- State Journal

Fresh off his redshirt football season, University of Wisconsin defensive back Keelon Brookins entered winter workouts in 2014 ready to prove he could be a vital part of the secondary.

Understandably, Brookins thought a strength coach was playing a joke on him when asking about his recent switch to outside linebacker. Brookins weighed only about 200 pounds at the time. He hadn’t had any conversations with former UW coach Gary Andersen about a switch, nor had any position coaches even hinted at the possibility.

Then Brookins stared at the workout sheet for that day, which directed the St. Paul, Minnesota, native to lift with the rest of the team’s linebackers.

It was no prank, and it took everything Brookins had to hold in his emotions until after his first workout of the offseason.

“I went home and I cried in my dorm,” Brookins said. “I was heartbroken. I had been playing defensive back my whole life. That’s what I thought I was the best at.”

In January, after two years of struggling to find comfort at the position, former UW defensive backs coach Daronte Jones gave Brookins the news he had longed for since that day in the weight room — he would move back to the secondary.

Brookins has excelled at safety throughout spring practice and he enters today’s spring game at Camp Randall Stadium as one of many inexperienced players fighting for a chance to fill the void left by graduating seniors Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy.

Getting to that point was quite a mental struggle, something Brookins wasn’t unfamiliar with.

He missed most of his junior season in high school after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, only to see his senior season cut short after suffering the same injury to his right knee.

Those injuries played a part in UW opting to redshirt him when he arrived on campus in 2013, and he was finally prepared to show what he could do before being forced into a switch to linebacker.

Brookins called his father, Tyrone Brookins, following the disclosure of his position switch in 2014. He and his father consider each other best friends, and the two speak nearly every day. If anyone could help Keelon peel away the disappointment to reveal the positives behind becoming a linebacker, it was Tyrone.

“Let’s look at the opportunities of what this could potentially bring to you, and in that conversation, I encouraged him to think about how he could use his strengths to play this position,” Tyrone Brookins said. “We gave him one night to sulk, and then after that, it’s time to get to work. It was out of his control. The decision had been made. Let’s plan and move forward and make the adjustments and try to get it done.”

Doing so wasn’t so simple. Keelon’s work ethic wasn’t an issue after the initial shock and disappointment of his position change, but no matter how many drills he ran through or how much film he watched, linebacker never felt natural.

If his son was putting the work in, Tyrone couldn’t understand why little progress was being made. Keelon asked his father to imagine writing a letter with his left hand.

“I don’t care how many times you practice it, if you put that pen back in your right hand it just naturally flows,” Tyrone recalls Keelon saying. “But with that pen in your left hand, you’re probably overthinking and the natural flow is not going to happen because you’re intentionally trying to work on the mechanics and the position of your fingers and your hand and your wrist.

“It’s just not natural.”

After UW coach Paul Chryst took over for Andersen last year, Keelon moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker for his redshirt sophomore season.

Brookins still struggled to fit in, couldn’t earn consistent playing time and wondered where his college football career was headed.

“When he was at linebacker, it was a dark time for him,” said senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton, Brookins’ roommate. “It was a difficult time for Keelon. You could just tell a level of discomfort and not wanting to be there. It’s truly hard to come out here every day and know that you want to play safety and you’re being made to play linebacker.

“But at the same time, you’ve got to handle the situations that you’re given, and that’s what Keelon did well. It’s hard to come out here and do something that you don’t like doing, and at the same time he did it. It’s something that he persevered through.”

When Jones told Keelon of his switch back to safety in January, Tyrone described Keelon’s reaction as a young child waking up on Christmas morning.

Shelton came home one day to find Keelon in an unusually good mood, and he knew something was going on before Keelon even told him the news. The teammates went on to talk about winter workouts, the upcoming start to spring practice and even what next season could be like with Keelon at safety.

Keelon even joked with Shelton about shedding his extra linebacker weight and becoming faster than Shelton.

“He’s getting a chance to get back to doing what he truly likes to be doing,” Shelton said. “You can see that that’s where he should have been his whole time here. Him being able to go back to what he was recruited here for, you can see that, man, he should have been here the whole time.

“He’s gone through a lot. (Defensive backs coach Jim) Leonhard has given him a tremendous amount of confidence, and it’s showing out here on the field. He’s making a lot of plays, and I’m happy for him. I just want him to keep pushing forward, keep excelling and try to get to another level.”

Brookins said he’s getting the swagger back that he had when he was being recruited out of high school as a highly ranked defensive back. He’s currently somewhere between the second and third team at safety but has shown a play-making ability that could finally allow him to see the field more often as a redshirt junior.

While linebacker never worked out, he maintains his two years at that position have made him a better safety, saying it forced him to become a more physical player and gave him better vision of the field.

He wants to prove he should have been a safety from start to finish of his collegiate career, though, and he’ll never forget the way the previous coaching staff handled his initial switch to linebacker.

“There was no conversation at all,” Brookins said. “I felt more disrespected by the fact that they didn’t tell me face to face and have a conversation with me. They just did it.

“That’s a chip on my shoulder right now. This season, I want to be the best. I felt like that was a low moment of my life that made me become a stronger individual, become a better man. It was something I had to work through.

“But that’s a chip on my shoulder that I’m going to carry until I can get it off.”

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Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.