MADISON, Wis. — T.J. Reynard is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts on the football field. And one week into Wisconsin’s fall practices, he is still attempting to reconcile the differences in his head.
On one hand, he recognizes the Badgers’ coaching staff wants to make use of his talents as a cornerback. Yet Reynard, a junior college transfer, also believes his natural position is elsewhere in the secondary.
So, what is he? A safety or a cornerback?
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“I get that question a lot,” he said. “I really consider myself as a safety, but I also can play cornerback.”
Last season, Reynard played safety while at Independence (Kan.) Community College and became one of the best at his position in the junior college ranks. He finished 18th nationally in total tackles (88), 13th in solo tackles (56) and 11th in tackles per game (11.3) by being aggressive in his pursuit of ball carriers.
The challenges of switching his frame of mind from overly aggressive at safety to patient at cornerback were evident on the field early in Wisconsin’s fall camp. During the first week, Reynard was so bent on impressing his new teammates and coaches that he played in a manner that didn’t fit his new position. He tried to jump every route and intercept every pass as though he could earn his stripes with one big play.
By the end of the week, Badgers coach Gary Andersen summoned Reynard to his office. The message? Relax and let the game come to you.
“He was like, ‘Man, I know you can play,'” Reynard recalled. “‘Just trust yourself. Just be patient. You don’t have to impress me. Just go out there and play your game.’ That’s the main adjustment I had to make”
Reynard, a sophomore, has been running with the second-team defense alongside cornerback Sojourn Shelton. The starting cornerbacks are Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary, who is serving as Reynard’s mentor in Andersen’s “Big Brother” program.
“He expects the most out of me,” Reynard said of Hillary. “Of course he’s going to be hard on me. He’s my big brother. He tries to tell me not to think too much out there. Just play my game. That’s the best advice he’s given me.”
After Reynard, a 5-foot-8, 172-pound sophomore, transferred to Wisconsin, it was thought he would come in and battle for playing time at safety. Wisconsin’s depth at safety was hurt when Reggie Mitchell transferred out of the program and junior college transfer Donnell Vercher didn’t qualify academically. Things were so thin that running back Jeff Lewis switched to safety in an effort to see the field quicker.
Yet safeties Leo Musso, Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo have impressed during fall camp in their effort to play alongside Dezmen Southward. Meanwhile, depth at cornerback remains an issue. And because the Badgers should see a number of spread teams this season, it would seem to increase the likelihood of Reynard seeing the field as a cornerback. The team will likely need four corners ready to play at any time.
“He’s a great corner,” Shelton said. “You can definitely see that. He’s fluid in the backpedal. Gets in and out of his breaks quick. Things like that is what can help the team in many ways. We are kind of short on corners, so we do need guys to be able to come in and play right now.
“I think he brings that with him playing juco and him being fluent in everything and being real crisp. He brings another corner that can just go in if anything was to happen or if we needed a substitution.”
Safeties coach Bill Busch, who recruited Reynard to play cornerback at Wisconsin, didn’t rule out the possibility Reynard could someday play safety again. But he remained firm in his stance that cornerback was the position for Reynard right now.
“He has safety ability,” Busch said. “He’s really done a nice job in camp at corner. With different packages of different teams, the Big Ten has changed a little bit. It’s really not so much of a neck-roll conference anymore (with) I-backs. There’s a lot of teams that are spread out all over the place.
“A lot of times they look to match up on three, four wide receivers. We need that coverage ability in him. He’s had a really good camp so far. Right now there wouldn’t be a move, but we never rule anything out. That’s for sure.”
So for the time being at least, Reynard will continue to learn the intricacies of playing cornerback, of trusting his reads and technique and knowing that he is now the last line of the Badgers’ defense. He is willing to do anything to contribute, even if it means playing a position that isn’t yet comfortable.
“It’s a difficult challenge, but you’ve just got to adapt to your surroundings,” Reynard said. “Adapt to every situation the coaches throw at you. You’ve just got to love being out here. You’ve got to be up for the challenge each and every day.”