MADISON, Wis. — Sojourn Shelton intercepted his second pass of Friday’s spring practice and zipped down the field to celebrate — arms out wide, circling the hash marks like an airplane.
For anyone who witnessed Shelton’s sophomore season at Wisconsin a year ago, the scene marked a distinct and welcome change. He had his smile. He had his happiness. He had his swagger back.
"I’m just trying to get back to the Sojourn that I know I am," Shelton said afterward. "I’m playing a lot more confident. I’m trusting the things I’m seeing. And overall just right now I’m happy. I think last year, I was so dialed in to trying to live up to the hype and live up to everybody else’s expectations. But I’ve got to live up to mine first and do my part."
Shelton’s 2014 season fell far short of the expectation level anyone had for him, including him. Sporting News named him a preseason first-team all-Big Ten selection at cornerback based on his sensational freshman campaign, in which he led the team with four interceptions. Shelton said he established a goal last season to record eight interceptions, which would have put him among the national leaders.
Instead, he finished with zero. Balls that landed in his hands as a freshman bounded away. And he fell into a deep spiral in which he lost the confidence that made him such a force in 2013.
"I look back at last year and I think of all the low times that I had and I was like, ‘Man, I still was around the ball,’" Shelton said. "Iowa, I was around the ball. Dropped it. Northwestern, I was around the ball. Dropped it. Now I’m back to just playing confident, believing in myself, just trying to play to the best of my ability."
Shelton did finish with 33 tackles and six passes defended, which is not terrible. But when juxtaposed against the 36 tackles, the seven passes defended, the forced fumble and those four picks he recorded as a freshman, it represented a step back for a player who is his own worst critic.
On Friday, however, Shelton looked every bit the player he was as a freshman. He intercepted quarterback Bart Houston on the left sideline during a 7-on-7 drill and returned it for a touchdown. Later, he picked off starter Joel Stave on a pass play over the middle. And last week, Shelton recorded two interceptions during a different practice. In fact, he has racked up enough picks that he noted he’d nearly reached his interceptions goal for the entirety of spring practices with two remaining and the spring game — though he kept the number to himself.
"Sojourn in particular has been doing really well," Badgers safety Michael Caputo said. "He seems to have a new type of energy that he’s bringing to the secondary in terms of just overall energy to make a play, get a tackle, make an interception. Guys are feeding off that."
Shelton’s performance this spring certainly has impressed defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who spoke as highly of him as any player on his unit.
"He’s been the biggest breakout guy so far on defense," Aranda said. "He has to finish it. Three weeks of spring ball at his position on this team doesn’t make a hill of beans right now, and he knows that. It’s a work in progress, but he has played really well. And so I’m happy for him. There’s a confidence and a swagger coming back to him. I’m almost nervous talking about it. I’d like to not even mention it."
Aranda noted the biggest contributor to Shelton’s breakout freshman season was his ability to play free and clear within Wisconsin’s defensive system. Aranda added that Shelton’s sophomore season was marred, in part, because Shelton lost his aggressiveness and was unsure when he could roam free or had to follow the defensive structure exactly to the script.
"Last year he very much played by the red light, green light and that’s just not him," Aranda said, noting Shelton was at his best when he was "jaywalking," or understanding when he could break the rules to make an instinctually athletic play.
Shelton said his plunge began last spring following a practice in which he did not perform particularly well because he felt ill. Former Badgers coach Gary Andersen then met with him privately to try and get him to play at a higher level.
"That’s when I first heard coach A talk about the sophomore slump," Shelton said. "I think I got so into that and trying to fight out of that hole and all that stuff. . . . I had a fever. But of course nobody wants to hear anything. I shouldn’t have been practicing."
Now, Shelton is free and clear again: happy and confident he can be the very best version of himself.
"The most important thing is to just have fun," Shelton said. "I’m doing what I love to do, which is play football. I’m trying to do it to the best of my ability, and I know I can play at a high level."