Badgers cornerbacks have much to prove

BY foxsports • August 2, 2013

This is the eighth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 5 start of practice.

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5

Projected starter(s): Peniel Jean (redshirt junior), Darius Hillary (redshirt sophomore)

Key backups: Sojourn Shelton (freshman), T.J. Reynard (sophomore), Hugs Etienne (redshirt freshman, Devin Gaulden (junior), Keelon Brookins (freshman)

The breakdown: Of all the position groups on Wisconsin's team, cornerback is the one with the most questions as the Badgers begin the 2013 season based on a lack of experience. The safeties have their own questions, but at least senior Dezmen Southward has proven his ability in big games.

Redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary and redshirt junior Peniel Jean appeared to have the starting cornerback roles locked up during spring practices as they worked with the No. 1 defense. But that was before first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen secured a commitment from junior college transfer T.J. Reynard, who played safety last season at Independence (Kan.) Community College and may well challenge for a cornerback spot instead.

Wisconsin has a tall task in replacing Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith, who have graduated. The two combined for 119 tackles with five interceptions and helped make the Badgers' secondary one of the strengths of the entire team in 2012.

Hillary, a 5-foot-11, 187-pounder, played in all 14 games last season, primarily in nickel packages for the Badgers. He tallied 23 tackles and two pass deflections. His best game came against UTEP last September when he registered eight tackles.

Jean (5-11, 188 pounds) has appeared in 19 career games over two seasons with 24 tackles and three pass breakups. He suffered a broken foot last season and was limited to just five games.

Hillary said he learned having a short memory as a cornerback would be a key to success. Last season, for example, Hillary was beaten for a game-deciding overtime touchdown against Michigan State when quarterback Andrew Maxwell delivered a perfect back-shoulder strike to Bennie Fowler.

"You're going to make some plays and then you might give some plays up," Hillary said. "But you can't let those bad plays determine how you play the rest of the game."

Reynard, a 5-11, 175-pounder, ranked 18th among junior college players in total tackles (88) and 13th in solo tackles (56). He came to Independence as a cornerback but was moved to safety to get on the field immediately. Reynard will have three years of eligibility remaining.

Best position battle: Will T.J. Reynard impress right away in fall practices and take one of the starting cornerback roles from Hillary or Jean? Will he wind up playing safety instead given the holes created by Reggie Mitchell and Donnell Vercher? That is one of the big questions as the season approaches, but it certainly isn't the only one pertaining to the cornerbacks.

Freshman Sojourn Shelton, who enrolled early for spring practices, earned important reps at cornerback. And redshirt freshman Hugs Etienne could emerge as a candidate to play as well. But whoever is out there will likely be tested by Big Ten offenses willing to air it out.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State; 2. Michigan State; 3. Nebraska

Is there any position in which Ohio State doesn't rank near the top of the Big Ten? It certainly isn't at cornerback, where the Buckeyes will rely on junior Bradley Roby, one of the top cornerbacks in the nation. Roby registered 63 tackles last season with 19 pass deflections and two interceptions. He'll likely be joined at cornerback by junior Doran Grant (19 tackles last season).

Michigan State will once again be stout at cornerback, led by senior Darqueze Denard (52 tackles, three interceptions). Trae Waynes, who played in nine games last season, will take over for cornerback Johnny Adams, and the Spartans shouldn't skip a beat.

Nebraska senior Stanley Jean-Baptiste is back at cornerback (24 tackles, two interceptions). Ciante Evans, another senior with experience, is fighting with Andrew Green for the other cornerback spot. Evans (56 tackles) and Green (50) provide Nebraska with two solid options.

Darius Hillary on his on-field relationship with Peniel Jean: "I think we complement each other well. We kind of feed off each other and play off each other's emotions. If he makes a play, I'm running up to him high-fiving and vice versa. We definitely always play off each other to have that good chemistry."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter

share story