March 22, 2011

Spring outlook: Safeties

If you've ever had an opportunity to spend even five minutes talking with senior safety Aaron Henry you'd be able to validate how determined an individual he is. If you haven't had that luxury, just know that he's one of the more polite but direct, engaging and intelligent players on the Badger roster.

So the fact that he's emerging as one of the leaders not only in the defensive backfield, but the entire team, is not surprising.

Having suffered a torn ACL late in his breakout freshman season, Henry was forced to redshirt the following year. Finally, after being cleared to play as a redshirt sophomore only to have things go awry, Henry was moved to an entirely new position.

Never once, at least on record, did the Florida native make an excuse for the poor play that jettisoned him to the back end of the secondary. Never once did he play the 'woe is me' card and never once did he think he couldn't succeed at safety.

That is what is exciting about Henry entering the 2011 spring camp. He's a bonafide player at the free safety position that will anchor what could be a pretty solid secondary this season.

He's got great ball skills - Henry had a couple interceptions and a few touchdowns last season - that translate well to the free safety position. He's a guy that has all-conference potential and will legitimately make a run towards the NFL with another year of development and production at the safety position.

UW will need to replace the graduated Jay Valai at the strong safety position, though, so the back end will have at least one fresh face.

Enter Shelton Johnson, a guy that made one of the biggest plays of the season a year ago when he chased down an Arizona State kick returner who was on the verge of housing a kick with no time left in the first half.

Johnson, on sheer will and determination, tripped the opponent up at the one-yard line.

He also got some valuable repetition at the strong safety position when Valai was nicked up during various junctures of the season. He'll be a guy that could be in for a monster spring assuming he continues to progress the way he showed he was able to when he received reps a season ago.

"He'll take over strong safety because he's got the most experience there," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "But Dezmen Southward has had a good winter after recovering from an emergency appendectomy surgery."

Southward remains as one of the more intriguing prospects on the entire roster. His blazing speed would translate well to the safety position if he found a level of consistency that's been plaguing him.

Keeping in mind this will be his third spring camp, maybe this will be the year he breaks through and makes a strong push for playing time.

"He's a guy we're poised to watch," Bielema said. "Dez might be the best athlete on our team. He's just a guy that's very, very raw in his football knowledge."

Really, outside of Henry and Johnson, there aren't many players behind them with much experience. For as veteran as the team was a season ago, it's that young this year.

Look for guys like Josh Peprah, who was playing with some momentum toward the end of the season, and Michael Trotter to make a strong push during spring camp. Though Johnson is the prohibitive favorite at the strong safety position, those two, along with Southward could make things interesting.

Also, don't count out a guy like Adam Hampton who seemingly does all the little things asked of him. Entering his final season as a Badger, expect him to do everything in his power to at least force the coaching staff to consider him once fall camp opens in August.

SPRING CAMP PREDICTION:

Hailing from a pretty solid football program at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, expect Michael Trotter to make some noise this spring. He's a heady player that seems to always find himself in the right place at the right time. The coaching staff was high on him (and his brother) when they signed him and it seems as though they continue to own those feelings.

"He's a guy that we really thought might come in and help us in the fall just because we were weak at the position," Bielema said. "He was doing really, really well and then he had mono and missed almost six to eight weeks. He never really recovered from that. He had a nice winter conditioning.

"He's very conscientious."

Other than Henry at the free safety position, it seems as though there could be some solid competition. Both positions are young and full of exuberant players hoping to break though. You would have to believe Johnson is poised to break out this year and really take the reigns at the strong side. But like Bielema intimated, maybe this is the year Southward really breaks through and starts making strides at one of the two safety positions.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:

FS:

AARON HENRY - SR
DEZMEN SOUTHWARD - R-SOPH
ADAM HAMPTON - SR

SS:

SHELTON JOHNSON - JR
JOSH PEPRAH - SOPH
MICHAEL TROTTER - R-FR

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