Wisconsin Football: Badger Secondary Looking to Be Second to None

Peter RaischContributor IIIAugust 21, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 03:  Shelton Johnson #24 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates after he intercepted a pass in the first half against the Michigan State Spartans  during the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The legacy of Wisconsin Badger football sits firmly on the meaty shoulders of its gigantic offensive linemen. The 2012 team is simply following tradition with guys like Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick and Rob Havenstein. But not all Badgers have to be huge to make a big impact.

This 2012 Wisconsin secondary may prove to be one of the conference's best units thanks to a nice blend of veteran leadership and young, hungry energy. It has big hitters and sure hands.

Most importantly, this squad has Hail Mary memories as a motivating force. 

2011 was marred by big plays blowing up in the Badgers' face. Some point to a lackluster pass rush, but the defensive backs shoulder a lion's share of the blame. Despite having more interceptions than any Badger team in the past four years, the second level of the defense was thought to be porous. With the 2012 first-week depth chart being released, co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is looking to shore up his defense with size, skill and some unknowns. 

The headliner of the group will be starting cornerback Devin Smith, who redshirted last year after an early-season injury. His return fills a hole left by Antonio Fenelus, who had four interceptions on his own last season. How important is Smith? Head coach Bret Bielema thought he was the one piece missing on his team in an interview with ESPN Radio Madison

"Devin was playing as good of football as we'd ever seen. For us here at Wisconsin, for us to have one of those special, special, maybe national championship-type seasons, you have to stay healthy," Bielema said. 

Smith, along with senior Marcus Cromartie, should create a solid one-two punch in coverage as the starters—but the two-deep provides some excitement as well. Devin Gaulden and Peniel Jean will backup Cromartie and Smith. Jean, in particular, has shown an extra gear when he saw action last year as a redshirt freshman. 

When it comes to safeties, Wisconsin will feature an athletic duo. The depth chart lists Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward as the starters at strong and free safety, respectively. Johnson grabbed four interceptions the previous year, with a few acrobatic moves to boot. 

Southward, on the other hand, is a hitter. And at 6'2" and 213 pounds—those hits will leave an impression. The safety backups include Michael Trotter, and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo. Caputo, a strong safety, is built in the Southward mold at 6'1" and 210 pounds, giving the Badgers a wealth of wingspan at the position.  

Like every other season, questions outweigh the answers on the field. This new-look secondary should provide some exclamation points.