Coming into the spring game one of the biggest question marks for this team had to be the secondary. Not only are they replacing long-time starters and three of the four starters, but there wasn't a lot of experience or depth ready to take over… at least that was the narrative.
In the annual Badgers spring game that's not what those in attendance witnessed. Instead what was seen was a group of young players more than capable of stepping up and making plays for this team come the fall.
"The corners as a whole have really progressed, worked hard," head coach Gary Andersen said following the game. "It's a work in progress."
"The list is not real long with those kids, but I think they have competed day in and day out, and techniques, moving to man coverage, moving to playing dog coverage, blitzing sometimes doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a lot to put on a kid's plate. They've got better every single day, I believe."
While the game may have been very vanilla on offense and defense, that actually worked in the favor of being able to see exactly who was getting it and who was struggling and it's safe to say the secondary got it more than they missed the mark on Saturday.
Expected starters Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean both looked steady and comfortable playing a lot more physical and up close in coverage. Hillary was 3rd on the team with 7 tackles in the spring game and Jean nearly had a pick or two come his way while recording 5 tackles of his own.
That helped ease fears, but nothing did it more than the clear breakout performance of the game by early-entrant freshman Sojourn Shelton, who had 4 tackles, a tfl, and nearly had a pick or two of his own. He is a player that not only has the coaches, but his fellow players taking a liking to him.
"Yeah, Sojourn, he has really competed all spring long, and the way he's handled the adjustment coming from high school has been impressive, not just on the field, but off the field," said Andersen. "His life flipped upside down, and he's handled it very well."
"I credit the other corners, who have kind of put their arms around him and made sure he was moving in the right direction. Sojourn was good today. I think he got his hands on two or three balls. He'd like to pick them all off, but if he was that good at receiving and catching, he'd probably be a wide receiver. He's playing very well. I'm happy where he is."
One thing about Shelton that has been clear from day one in his recruitment to stepping on campus in January – he doesn't lack for confidence and that's a good thing when you're talking about cornerbacks. He also knows that there is plenty of room for growth and he appears willing to soak up any lesson he can learn.
"I think I've grown a lot," said Shelton. "I think has a corner you have to have that (confidence), with the confidence level comes the not thinking so much, just go ahead (and) make plays. I think just overall this spring that has been the biggest tool I've gotten back and it showed today I guess."
Shelton also made it clear that he sees this defense being very good come the fall and that his goal is to be an impact player for this team, no matter what his role will be.
More than the numbers, which were very promising, it was the attitude and the fact that all of the corners and even the safeties were willing to hit and were in position to make plays on the ball. However, moving forward they've got to show they can turn that position into more than just passes defensed come the fall.
In the end one scrimmage or one performance doesn't mean that all is right with the world and we still may see some growing pains from time to time with this group, but the doom and gloom that some predicted for this secondary with all the starters that were graduating was premature at a minimum and potentially downright foolish.
At least the foundation for this young group is solid and there seems to be more answers than questions for a new look secondary.