CHICAGO – Continuity in college football is something that can be hard to find, for a number of reasons. Whether it’s coaches getting fired or moving on to greener pastures, players transferring or exhausting eligibility, it’s rare to see in today’s game. And that’s true for Wisconsin as well. Because while the offense returns nearly intact from 2017, the defensive side of the ball is a different story.
The Badgers bring back just four starters — linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, and safety D’Cota Dixon — from a unit that ranked third in the country in points allowed per game — its third-straight year of finishing in the top-5.
Wisconsin’s secondary took an especially hard hit, as defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard lost starting cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, as well as starting safety Natrell Jamerson. Tindal and Jamerson exhausted their eligibility, while Nelson chose to forego his final season of college to enter the 2018 NFL Draft where he was selected in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders.
Dixon is the lone returning starter on the back end, leading a group that is sure to be tested often through the air by opposing offenses.
“Our secondary is kind of like our wide receivers was last year,” coach Paul Chryst said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. “[They are] young and they’ve got to grow, but there’s talent there and you can go across the board on that.”
Last season the wide receiving corps entered with a few unproven guys behind Jazz Peavy, who left the team mid-season. The group of Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor stepped up and heads into 2018 as one of the most explosive on the team, and the best group Wisconsin has had in quite some time.
The defensive backs will hope to replicate that formula of success.
Throughout his time in with the Badgers, Dixon has been a defensive leader, both vocally and emotionally. His biggest fault has been his ability to stay on the field due to injuries. Dixon suffered a season-ending injury in his freshman season and has missed time due to both leg and shoulder issues since then. Last year he played in 12 games for the Badgers, starting nine of them.
“I need to stay healthy. That’s my goal. That’s my biggest goal,” Dixon said Tuesday. “That is my objective for 2018. I want to be there for my teammates. I’m going to always be there to support them, but I want to also support them on the field.”
The secondary certainly has potential, just as the wide receivers did prior to last season, but much of it is unproven. Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone will both be entering their sophomore seasons, with Carriere-Williams being in his third-year on campus. Each of them played at times during 2017, including five starts for Carriere-Williams.
The other starting safety position is up in the air, although there is a strong possibility that Scott Nelson is opposite of Dixon. Those two are close friends and Dixon has taken Nelson under his wing. During the 2017 season, Nelson redshirted, but whenever Dixon was not on the field, Nelson could be found not far behind.
“Scott is like a brother [to me],” Dixon said. “I think he will be a leader here…As far as [the media], you guys will get to know him once you see him make a few plays. He’ll get some acknowledgement off of that, I think. You’ll start to see his personality and the character he really has as a person.”
Nelson figures to fight with redshirt sophomore Patrick Johnson, and Dixon would be just fine with that. But he also believes in Nelson’s talent.
“I would like to see him on the field with me,” Dixon said. “Obviously, as a player, there’s a lot of things you bring to the table and to the field as an individual. There’s a lot of attributes you can bring. But I think what makes me a better player is the guy next to me. I don’t make plays on my own. It’s the communication, it’s the pre-play recognition. Can you disguise? Can you talk coverage? Things of that nature. I would love to be on the field with him and compete with him more on a consistent basis.”
Dixon isn’t solely the leader of the secondary. He’s also one of the leaders of the team. He has an even-keeled demeanor but has always been the heartbeat of the back end.
His leadership has been best shown in his ability to bond with other players. The relationship with Nelson is one that the Badgers will need to see translate to the field.
“I think he knows that Scott Nelson is going to have to be a big part of what we do this year,” Edwards said of Dixon. “Literally, those two are inseparable. He’s with him all the time. They’re talking film, talking just off the field stuff.”
Obviously, Nelson won’t be the only fresh face in the mix for playing time in the secondary. Carriere-Williams saw extensive action as the third cornerback last year and that will expand. Cone was the fourth cornerback for much of the season, but he’s now in position to earn a starting spot. Injuries led Faion Hicks to redshirt in his first year and will almost certainly factor in as well.
Spring practice saw those players and a number of others get a massive number of snaps, especially with Dixon forced to sit out while recovering injuries that limited him as a junior.
“It was fun and cool to watch them actually communicate and create chemistry,” Dixon said. “I think it was actually easier because they all [were] kind of new in it together, as far as not starting in a game or anything like that. They approached it well. I think they handled it well. They’re growing [fast].”
Wisconsin is counting on that to be the case. If Dixon is proven right, and the young guys come along quickly, then the Badgers will have a great chance to show that even a lack of continuity can’t disrupt the standard the secondary has set in what have become the glory days for defense in Madison.