When last season was coming to a close, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sat cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams down to explain some things. The South Florida product was putting the finishing touches on a redshirt freshman season that saw him earn a role as the third cornerback behind senior Derrick Tindal and junior Nick Nelson. It had its highs and lows but was trending upward at the end.
So Leonhard, knowing that Tindal was out of eligibility and Nelson was likely to leave early for the NFL, got in front of Carriere-Williams to hammer home what was going to be expected of him as the Badgers rebuilt their secondary. And it wasn’t just solely his own play. Leonhard wanted him to lift the play of others as well.
“[He told me] the things he needed me to do to be able to take that next step and be a great player,” Carriere-Williams said. “With me, sitting back and looking at it, from the understanding that I’m the corner with the most game experience, of course I look at it like I have to lead those guys. And when I say lead, it’s not telling them what to do. It’s about uplifting our guys and keeping everybody motivated. We’re all going to hold each other accountable.
“Just being that guy in the room keeping everybody up and hold that standard.”
The standard, at least in the last five years, has been set at high level for the entire secondary. The likes of Darius Hillary, Sojourn Shelton, Tindal, Nelson, Natrell Jamerson, Michael Caputo, Tanner McEvoy and others saw to that. Wisconsin’s pass defense has finished in the top 10 in the country in yards allowed three times since 2013 and never lower than 30th. Despite losing three starters from last season, the expectations for having success doesn’t change. And because of Carriere-Williams’ experience — he played in all 14 games and started five last season — eyes are on him to be the guy.
“Absolutely. That’s understandable,” Carriere-Williams said when asked about being the No. 1 cornerback. “It’s only right for them to expect that out of me. And it’s only right for me to expect that out of myself.”
Carriere-Williams will tackle the challenge fully healthy, something he wasn’t last year. He suffered an abdominal injury that bothered him throughout the course of the season, and he underwent surgery in January to fix it. He missed much of spring practice, something that was frustrating, though it did force him to take a step back and gain insight from a mental perspective. Still, it hurt the former 3-star recruit not being on the field.
“Life can get hard sometimes. Football is my getaway,” Carriere-Williams said. “I’m able to come out on the field and clear my mind. My peace of mind, just not having it, when you’ve been playing it your whole life, it bothers you.”
The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Carriere-Williams returned to practice on a limited basis late in the spring, focused on getting better from a year in which he finished with 30 tackles, one interception and seven pass breakups.
“Not good enough,” Carriere-Williams said of his season before softening a little bit. “I just want to be a better overall player. Of course my performance last year was OK. I showed signs of what I could do. But I don’t think I’ve proven I can be that guy. I’ve shown signs, but I have a lot more to prove. I have a big chip on my shoulder.”
As do the cornerbacks around him. Sophomore Madison Cone, redshirt freshman Faion Hicks, redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams and freshman Donte Burton all know that outsiders have questions about them and understand that other teams will target them this fall.
“Honestly, if I was an offensive coordinator playing against us, you’d be a fool not to test us,” Cone said. “We’re just using it as fuel. We know we’re going to get tested and we plan on making people pay.”
Biggest question: What will the starting unit look like?
Here’s what we think we know heading into fall camp. Senior D’Cota Dixon will man one of the two safety spots, just like he has the last two seasons. Carriere-Williams will almost certainly be one of the starting corners. Past that, everything is pretty fluid.
Let’s start with Cone. He served as essentially the fourth cornerback last season and should figure into the starting lineup as well. Though just 5-foot-9, he’s an explosive athlete that could excel playing in the slot.
The third cornerback spot is wide open. Hicks and Williams each had strong springs, though the latter made more big plays than perhaps any of the other defensive backs. Burton, an early enrollee, exited spring in position to push for time.
The coaching staff also seems to be excited about two other incoming freshmen — Travian Blaylock and Alex Smith.
At safety, the favorite has to be redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. He was likely ready to play by late last season, but Wisconsin didn’t want to burn his redshirt. At 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, Nelson has the size in addition to the athleticism needed for the spot. He’s also very close with Dixon on and off the field and has been soaking up everything the veteran has to say.
He’s likely to be challenged by redshirt sophomores Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson.
What they said:
“I see great things. A group of guys that come ready to work every day. As a defensive back, there’s ups and downs, but those guys take the good with the bad. They make a lot of plays, and when they give up a play, they don’t get down. They hop back up and they get ready to make another play.”
— Carriere-Williams on what he’s seen out of the younger cornerbacks
Projected depth chart
CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS SO), Faion Hicks (RS FR)
S: D’Cota Dixon (SR), Patrick Johnson (RS SO)
S: Scott Nelson (RS FR), Eric Burrell (RS SO)
CB: Madison Cone (SO), Caesar Williams (RS SO)