Even if Lubern Figaro wanted to erase last year’s Big Ten Championship game from his memory, this offseason wouldn’t allow him to.
The University of Wisconsin cornerback surrendered two long touchdowns in that game. The first was a 33-yard bomb that Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki caught over Figaro in the end zone. Later in the first half, Figaro took an unwise gamble that allowed Saeed Blacknall to turn a 9-yard completion into a 40-yard score.
The Badgers led 28-7 before that second play and went on to suffer a crushing 38-31 loss after the Nittany Lions completed their comeback in the second half.
“I feel like every time I change to the Big Ten channel, I see it,” Figaro said. "That game pisses me off every single day. I use that game as motivation. … I’ve got to re-live that game in the moment, but I know I’m going to do something special this year."
Figaro, now a senior, enters the final few weeks of preseason still battling for the Badgers’ No. 3 cornerback spot with redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams.
Figaro started seven games at safety as a freshman in 2014 but found himself buried on the depth chart after switching to cornerback. It took an injury to Natrell Jamerson last season for Figaro to earn his chance, and for most of the season he served as a more-than-adequate stopgap for UW at the position.
Years after his position change, Figaro said he now feels much more comfortable with his technique at cornerback.
“It was pretty tough because I had never really played corner,” Figaro said. "I was never really a technique guy. I played off my athletic abilities. Now, (defensive coordinator Jim) Leonhard is teaching me a lot. All the coaches are teaching me about my technique, and I feel like it’s getting there now from a year ago.
"I feel like I stepped up huge (this offseason). My technique is not where I want it to be yet, but it’s improving every single day."
Figaro could, however, have difficulty fending off competition to be a quasi starter in UW’s defense as the nickel cornerback.
The Badgers’ coaching staff believes Carriere-Williams could become a key piece in the secondary for the next several years. They even considered pulling his redshirt last season and playing him as a true freshman.
Carriere-Williams said the playbook was his biggest hurdle last season, and that no longer appears to be an issue.
"Managing the time and classes with the playbook, I had to get that down pat,” Carriere-Williams said. "That’s one thing I can say the redshirt year I benefited from. Coming into spring this year, I knew the playbook, so all I had to do was go out on the field and play fast and make plays, and everything else came."
Gaining a better knowledge of what the Badgers want to do defensively was important for Carriere-Williams, especially since he’s taken a number of reps in the slot during fall camp. Leonhard said he asks a lot from those who play in that spot, and he wants both Carriere-Williams and starter Derrick Tindal to be comfortable covering receivers on the outside and in the slot.
"He has a better understanding of the defense,” Leonhard said. "Physically, he’s ready to play and he’s ready to help us."
Carriere-Williams may be the favorite to win this position battle, but Figaro maintained a fairly even share of first-team reps in nickel packages during UW’s 12 open practices this fall. Both may be needed anyway. Figaro still played a role once Jamerson returned from injury last season.
There isn’t any proven depth behind Figaro and Carriere-Williams, either, and the Badgers simply hope both are ready to excel if called upon.
“Competition just makes the group better,” Carriere-Williams said. "Coming out here every day, we’re going to push each other. If somebody goes down, you want to be confident in that next guy, that he’ll be able to go out there and make a play. At the end of the day, we’re on the same team. But, I also want to go out there and win the job."