With Wisconsin's fall camp set to begin in less than two weeks, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at the individual position groups. Today, our continuing series focuses on the cornerbacks.
Following a spring camp full of injuries in 2008, many of the young corners became acclimated to game action. Now, with the season looming and after a highly productive spring camp in 2009, the corner position seems to be one of the better units on the team.
Departing Starters: Allen Langford
Returning Starters: Aaron Henry, Niles Brinkley
Top Reserves: Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus
Post-Spring Depth Chart
R-So. Aaron Henry (6-0, 197)
R-Fr. Marcus Cromartie (6-1, 187)
Jr. Niles Brinkley (5-10, 180)
So. Devin Smith (5-11, 187)
So. Antonio Fenelus (5-10, 186)
Overview: As sophomore Aaron Henry split out wide to defend powerful receiver Nick Toon during one of last spring's scrimmages, a telling sign occurred. Henry, always a physical back during his true freshman season at Wisconsin, completely ripped the ball out of Toon's hand forcing an incomplete pass.
In short, UW's best cover corner is back to full strength. After missing all of 2008 due to setbacks from his previously torn ACL, Henry looks to be ready to anchor a unit high on talent.
"Despite losing a lot of guys, some of the guys going off to the NFL, some of the guys just graduating due to them being seniors, we're not going to let that hold us back," Henry said during spring camp. "This year, expect old Badger football. Rough, tough, in your face, talking smack, I mean, old school."
Overall, in addition to Henry, the position returns a multitude of players with experience at the position. Of all the people on the field last season, only former Badger Allen Langford (graduation) and Mario Goins (academic issues) will not be joining the unit again this fall.
"You can have a lot of experience and still play bad," UW defensive back coach Kerry Cooks said last spring. "These guys have got to take the experiences that they've had, share it with the younger guys as well as when they're on the field they've got to use it."
The Pro: Henry. Even after missing an entire season dealing with his knee injury, Henry was in great shape and flew around the field during spring camp. He was back to his normal physical style of jamming receivers at the line and contesting throws. And with his return, it was obvious the entire secondary was playing with more confidence than was shown at points during the previous season.
"Anytime you have people on the field that actually played in games, I give them more respect than people who actually haven't," UW senior safety Aubrey Pleasant said during spring ball. "Not saying other people that haven't played in games can't play to that caliber, but nobody really understands how it is playing in front of 80,000 fans, when the stadium is rocking, third and nine.
"When you have that experience, it brings something else to the table."
During his freshman season, Henry played in every regular season game and did so at a high level. Then, when he went down during bowl prep with a serious knee injury, the future was uncertain as everyone recovers from the injury in different ways. For Henry, the only option he had was to come back and be even stronger than he was prior to the injury.
"My knee is a whole lot stronger," Henry told reporters in March. "I truly believe that my right knee is stronger than my left knee. I had surgery on my right knee. It feels 100 percent. I'm just ready to get back out there and roll. It feels real, real good. Like I told you guys before, it's more of a mental thing as opposed to a physical (thing).
"The mental part is taken care of and I'm just ready to get back out there and play on it."
The Rising Star: Cromartie. It was apparent Cromartie would be an influential part of the 2009 rotation during spring camp when he elevated his game and shot up the depth chart. The sophomore seems to have a knack for the ball and finds his ultra athletic body in the right place in the right time more often than not. He possesses great open field speed as was seen during the spring game when he caught Erik Smith from across the field.
"I feel like what you don't want to do is make one bad play then have it be a slippery slope where you make three or four bad plays," Cromartie said during spring ball. "I really believe in the fact that you have to have a short-term memory because all DB's are going to make mistakes.
"When you get beat on a big play, you just have to come back and regain your confidence and come back and try to play well again."
Battle to Watch: Who will start opposite Henry? With injuries running rampant at times a year ago, Brinkley got a bevy of reps and played well at times. But, as most young players are, he also showed some inconsistencies. Still, he possesses solid speed and good ball skills that allow him an opportunity to make great plays on the field.
Still, both Fenelus and Smith will have a legitimate shot to get themselves into the mix for consistent playing time during fall camp. Fenelus, a physical back himself, was making great strides during spring camp and looks to continue that momentum into training camp.
"He's shown me that he's; one, he's a physical dude, which I love," Cooks said during spring ball. "He's shown the capacity to handle a lot of things mentally to where we feel comfortable with him being out there with his aggressiveness and understanding our schemes to be able to go out there and play and produce for us."
Meanwhile, Smith, who has all the necessary athletic tools to succeed, needs to focus on putting everything together and become more consistent.
"I think that we have it (physicality) and that we got some guys that are some pretty sound tacklers in Niles Brinkley, Fenelus
.and Devin Smith. So, it's just a matter of getting those guys to buy into our system and trigger the way we want them to trigger."
Expectations: With a full strength Henry back on the field and an experienced Brinkley on the other side, the cornerbacks will be young but full of experience. As long as the younger, less experienced players continue to progress this fall, the stable of cornerbacks has all the potential to be great.
"We have a lot of experience in the back end," Henry said last spring. "I think right now, most of the pressure is on us because we have guys who's been back there at least two, maybe three years. The front seven has done their job throughout the years, but I guess the pressure is on us."
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