Badgers hope they have safeties in numbers

BY foxsports • August 3, 2013

This is the ninth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 5 start of practice.
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starter(s): Dezmen Southward (redshirt senior)

Key backups: Michael Caputo (redshirt sophomore), Jeff Lewis (redshirt junior), T.J. Reynard (sophomore), Michael Trotter (redshirt junior), Kyle Zuleger (redshirt senior)

The breakdown: Is the situation at safety really so desperate that a third-string running back with no college experience as a defensive back would switch positions and give it a try? Well, yes, actually. For all the depth the Badgers have developed at running back, that's how thin they are at safety.

And so, Jeff Lewis will enter fall camp with as good a shot as anybody to earn playing time alongside Dezmen Southward at safety. What does that say about the Badgers' secondary? Only that it will be the most inexperienced unit on the entire team, and opposing quarterbacks likely will salivate at the prospect of throwing deep.

"We'll be OK," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said last week at the Big Ten media days. "It's going to be interesting to see. There's four or five kids back there that are going to battle like crazy. I'm sure they've had great summers. We're about to find out how great of summers they had. That'll be the key.

"If Jeff really wants to come in and be a big-time safety and fight for that spot, how well did he prepare himself in June and July? I don’t know that. But we're all about to find out."

The only thing we know about the safeties is that Dezmen Southward will be on the field as the team's starting strong safety. He is the only returning starter from the secondary last season and tallied 69 tackles with eight tackles for a loss and an interception. Andersen said it would be important for Southward to be matched with a player that helps Southward play at his best, and it remains to be seen which player will emerge.

Reggie Mitchell worked as the No. 1 free safety during spring practices, and it appeared he would be in a battle for the starting spot with incoming junior college transfer Donnell Vercher in the fall. Mitchell transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, however, and Vercher did not qualify academically at Wisconsin, turning everything upside down.

That could leave Michael Trotter in position to start. Last season, he played in 13 games with three starts in place of the injured Shelton Johnson. Trotter's performance was up and down, and he finished the season with 24 tackles.

Depending how the coaching staff wants to use junior college transfer T.J. Reynard, who could also wind up competing at safety, he also may be an option. Reynard came to Independence (Kan.) Community College as a safety but was moved to cornerback to get on the field as a freshman last season.

"I think it's natural for people on the outside to panic a little bit," Southward said during the spring. "'Oh we only have one senior and a bunch of redshirt freshmen, redshirt sophomores.' It'll be nothing to worry about. Anywhere you go, there will be people that leave and somebody has to step up. It'll be no different here. I think you'll see we have a lot more talent than people understand, and it'll be showcased."

Best position battle: The starting free safety job is up for grabs as fall camp begins, and someone will have to earn it in the first few weeks. Trotter seems to be in position to take over after Mitchell and Vercher didn't pan out. But Jeff Lewis and Kyle Zuleger are both desperate to finally see the field after switching from the offensive side of the ball. And you can't underestimate their work ethic as the clock continues to tick on their college careers.

Michael Caputo also could challenge for playing time at safety. A year ago, he recorded just 10 tackles but played in 13 games.

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

Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are returning starters at the safety positions for Ohio State, which makes the Buckeyes loaded in the secondary. Bryant (75 tackles, one interception last season) and Barnett (56 tackles, two interceptions) hands down form the best safety combination in the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns strong safety Isaiah Lewis, who was second on the team last season with 80 tackles. Kurtis Drummond should occupy the free safety spot after recording 53 tackles and two interceptions a year ago.

At Michigan, Thomas Gordon will serve as strong safety after tying for third on the team with 81 tackles last season. Jarrod Wilson, who appeared in 10 games in 2012, could slide over to free safety.

Strong safety Dezmen Southward says: "Come after us. We'll show you we're ready to play. I think you can say that about any team. Who's going to hide four DBs? That's the craziest thing I've heard in my life. If teams want to come down the field and challenge us, we'll be ready, and I think they'll change their gameplan after a couple times."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter

share story