CBs shore up secondary for No. 5 Wisconsin
Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus both heard the criticism in the offseason. The reason the Wisconsin defense wasn't more successful a year ago was because their cornerbacks just couldn't keep up.
''The secondary was the weak link,'' Fenelus said. ''Last year, what happened, there were a lot of missed plays, things like that.''
No. 5 Wisconsin, which will play for a share of the Big Ten title on Saturday against Northwestern, had an opening on the staff for a coaching position for the group and head coach Bret Bielema picked Chris Ash from Iowa State to inherit a secondary with a growing reputation of being a ragtag bunch.
After all, the unit had given up 396 yards passing to Michigan State, 323 to Indiana and 364 against Northwestern's spread attack last season and senior leader Chris Maragos was gone following Wisconsin's 10-3 mark.
Ash stepped in immediately and addressed the returning players.
''He asked us, 'Do you guys want to lose less games than you did last year?' Everybody said, 'Of course,''' safety Aaron Henry recalled. ''He was like 'Do you want (more) wins? Just listen to me.' When you've got a guy coming in there like that, I loved it.''
Ash said he found a group that was eager to learn, but needed to improve on technique and consistency. He was impressed to find that his players would get to practice early and stay late, working drill after drill or watching film together in an effort to absorb his message.
''They want to be good, they want to be coached and they want to do everything they can to make it happen,'' Ash said. ''There were some technique things that we changed, we changed a few things with some coverages, but the biggest thing was be consistent with what you're asked to do and we're getting to that point.''
Brinkley said he worked against deep passes seemingly all of spring practice.
The proof of progress has come against spread attacks, something the Badgers had struggled with in each of the previous two seasons. Against the spread offenses of Purdue, Indiana and Michigan, Wisconsin has allowed an average of 146 yards passing with quarterbacks completing just 53 percent of their passes in those games.
Overall, Wisconsin is allowing 198 yards through the air.
''We've improved. I'm not going to say we're great. I'm not even going to say we're good, but we've improved each week we've gone out there on Saturday,'' Ash said. ''We've worked hard to do that.''
And Ash has gotten the most out of his two short cornerbacks.
Brinkley is 5-foot-10 and Fenelus is listed at a generous 5-foot-9. But instead of the two hanging their heads like they did after missed plays this year, both are playing with renewed confidence.
Fenelus, who has the added off-field responsibility of being a father after his son was born earlier this month, no longer has a problem with the checkoffs that quarterbacks make looking in his direction.
''It's definitely motivation seeing the quarterback check. I get really excited just knowing I get a chance to get another pick. That's the only thing I look at it as,'' said Fenelus, who won Big Ten defensive player of the week for the first time in his career earlier this month. ''I definitely think other players and other receivers, I can see the quarterback checking to the receiver to 'throw it up, throw it up.' But I just go out there and play. And after the game's over, they know I'm a pretty good cornerback.''
Brinkley has turned out to be a pretty good cornerback, too, after entering the program wanting to be a wide receiver.
''(He) came as a wide receiver, (sustained a) torn ACL, and didn't exactly jump at the idea of becoming a cornerback. To see him have the success he's having right now, I don't know if we'd be where we are if he hadn't played as well as he had this year,'' Bielema said.
Both Henry and senior Jay Valai have stepped up in larger roles, too, easing the departure of Maragos.
''I wouldn't consider us to be great yet either because we have still have a lot more improvement to go,'' Henry said. ''I don't think we've truly reached that pinnacle of success to where we can be considered as great, but we have done some things a whole lot better this year and I would say we are a solid secondary compared to last year. We're giving up less touchdowns and we're tackling a whole lot better.''