Badgers positional preview: Cornerbacks

Sojourn Shelton (left) had 36 tackles and four interceptions last season, while Darius Hillary (right) finished with 30 tackles and six passes defended.

Jeff Hanisch

 

This is the eighth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 4 start of practice. You can find the entire series here.

Today’s position: Cornerbacks

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7

Projected starters: Sojourn Shelton (sophomore), Darius Hillary (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Devin Gaulden (redshirt junior), T.J. Reynard (junior), Terrance Floyd (redshirt junior), Hugs Etienne (redshirt sophomore)

The breakdown: The starting cornerback duo is much more set than Wisconsin’s safeties group (outside of Michael Caputo), and that should provide a measure of comfort for fans. Sojourn Shelton is a star in the making, while Darius Hillary has proven to be plenty talented in his own right.

Last season, Hillary and Shelton combined to start 25 games. Hillary finished with 30 tackles and tied for second on the team with six passes defended. Shelton proved to be one of the best freshman cornerbacks in the nation. He recorded 36 tackles and ranked first on the team in interceptions (four), passes defended (11) and pass breakups (seven). With another season to mature, Shelton could be an all-conference type of player in 2014.

Badgers 2014 Positional Preview Series

Shelton had his freshman moments last season, but what made him such a standout player was his ability to learn from them. He struggled against Arizona State and outwardly expressed his dissatisfaction with referees on a couple of pass interference calls. He also dropped an interception late in the first half against Ohio State, which allowed the Buckeyes to score off a long touchdown pass on the next play. But those mistakes took place in the first month of the season, and he improved tremendously as the season progressed.

Best position battle: Gaulden was one of the surprises of spring camp, and he’ll see plenty of action on the field this season now that he’s fully recovered from a torn ACL injury. How much he plays depends on the packages defensive coordinator Dave Aranda installs, but Gaulden is excited about the opportunity.

"I definitely like the aggressive style he’s bringing to the defense," Gaulden said this spring. "A lot of press coverage. A lot of press-man bump and run. I feel that’s a strength of mine is getting up and having the confidence to challenge receivers and put my hands on receivers. So that’s a huge complement to my game. I feel like that’s a big part of what I love about this defense."

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan; 2. Northwestern; 3. Wisconsin

Michigan brings back both of its starting cornerbacks with Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor. Countess started all 13 games last season and tallied 46 tackles with six interceptions. Taylor led the team in tackles with 86 and finished second in interceptions behind Countess with four.

Northwestern also returns its starting cornerback duo of Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris. VanHoose was sixth on the team in tackles (61), and Harris added 36 tackles.

Wisconsin’s duo of Shelton and Hillary don’t necessarily have huge numbers, but they worked well together last season. And keep in mind the Badgers ranked 17th nationally in pass defense (202.5 yards allowed), so the back end must be doing something right.

Sojourn Shelton says: "I approach every day as if I don’t have a spot locked down. I think that’s the best part about it. Honestly, with the coaches, I think every player understands that. You truly don’t have a spot locked down. The best 11 players are going to play out there. Confidence-wise, everybody knows I’m a pretty confident person. I just think it continues to grow."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter