Badgers have confidence in freshmen cornerbacks

MADISON, Wis. — The two-deep depth chart for Wisconsin’s football team features an unusual scenario at cornerback this season, one rarely seen across the major college football landscape: two freshmen listed side-by-side.

Given the scrutiny that comes with playing corner — and the difficulties of mastering such a complex spot — few newcomers typically find themselves in position even to contribute. But Sojourn Shelton and Jakarrie Washington have thrived under the weight of expectations. Shelton has stepped into the starting cornerback role, with Washington serving as a backup.

“On game days, they know I’ve got confidence in them going out there to execute their job as long as they continue to show that during the course of the week,” Badgers cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland said. “Those guys for their age have shown a great maturity in doing that.”

Shelton in particular has proven to be a dynamic playmaker for the Badgers. The 5-foot-9, 172-pounder from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., arrived on campus a semester early in January to take part in spring practice, and the work has paid off.

Through six games, Shelton leads the team in interceptions (three) and pass deflections (six) while ranking fifth on the team in total tackles (19).

“I personally don’t feel like I’m a freshman,” Shelton said. “The process of being a freshman when you come in early, that title, it’s pretty long. That was one of my goals before I came in was not to come in with the mentality of a freshman. Through that, with school and also learning out here, I personally don’t carry that title. But it is what it is.”

Still, there are bound to be freshman moments for Shelton, especially considering he plays most of the game. Against Arizona State, he struggled at times and lost his composure arguing with a referee after drawing two pass interference calls and a holding penalty.

During last Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Shelton was involved in a play in which Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian completed a 46-yard pass to receiver Rashad Lawrence. The play helped set up a field goal, which trimmed Northwestern’s halftime deficit to 21-6.

“We were in cover 3,” Shelton explained. “I could have done a little bit more to not let that happen. Little details I need to work on are a focus and also building and maintaining on my game right now.”

Washington, meanwhile, has seen his role increase as the season has progressed. A second-half injury to nickel back Darius Hillary against Northwestern allowed Washington to play roughly 25 defensive snaps, according to Strickland. This season, Washington has amassed five tackles.

Washington, a 5-9, 180-pounder from Everett, Mass., was not a heavily recruited cornerback. Wisconsin represented his first major scholarship offer, though he said Texas Tech and Washington State likely would have offered him soon thereafter.

“Massachusetts really isn’t looked upon by most schools,” Washington said. “They do kind of underrate players. I didn’t really go to that many combines or camps. They could only see by the games. It was really underrated.”

The notion of playing two freshmen corners could be scary for some teams — or create fear for the safeties with thoughts of having to overcompensate for their mistakes. But that has not been the case at Wisconsin.

“I don’t think we’ve had to at all,” Badgers safety Dezmen Southward said. “Being able to hold their own physically and mentally was the thing that we were all worried about. Obviously they’ve come in, they’ve handled five, six gameplans like it’s nothing. It’s pretty impressive when you sit back and look at it. But no, we don’t compensate at all.”

Though Shelton and Washington still have plenty of room to improve, Badgers coach Gary Andersen has been pleased with their development — and what it could mean for other players down the road.

“It’s great,” Andersen said. “I look forward to it in the future. We start looking at the recruiting board and see some of our kids potentially we could bring in. I think it helps us in recruiting, letting young men know, hey, you can play as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. I feel good about those two kids.”

Schedule announced: The Big Ten announced its league schedules for 2018 and 2019 on Wednesday, revealing the Badgers’ nine conference games each season. UW will begin both conference seasons in the third week of September, with four home league games in 2018 and five in 2019.

Wisconsin will open the 2018 Big Ten season at Iowa on Sept. 22, followed with a bye week. Nebraska will then play at Wisconsin on Oct. 6. The Badgers play at Michigan on Oct. 13, then host Illinois and travel to face Northwestern to close October.

In November, Wisconsin will host Rutgers, play at Penn State and Purdue and close the regular season with a home game against rival Minnesota on Nov. 24.

In 2019, the schedule appears especially tough. Wisconsin has three consecutive home games to start the Big Ten schedule, but those come against Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. The Badgers will then travel to face Illinois and Ohio State to close October.

In November, Wisconsin will play host to Iowa and Purdue and travel to play Nebraska and Minnesota.

Watch list: Wisconsin tight end Jacob Pedersen is on the midseason watch-list for the John Mackey Award, it was announced this week.

Pedersen, on the award’s preseason watch list for the second straight season, is one of 29 players under consideration for the award presented annually to the nation’s most outstanding tight end. He is one of five Big Ten tight ends on the list.

This season, Pedersen has 12 catches for 131 yards with two touchdowns. In his career, he has 77 catches for 974 yards and 16 touchdowns — tied for seventh all-time at Wisconsin with tight end Garrett Graham.

The announcement of semifinalists for the Mackey Award will take place Nov. 18, and the finalists will be revealed Nov. 25. The winner will be announced Dec. 12 during The Home Depot College Football Awards Red Carpet Show on ESPNU.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter