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September 28, 2010MADISON - It's funny what one big hit can do.
It can sway momentum in your favor, it can provide a psychological advantage and it forces future opponents to take notice.
For Aaron Henry, a junior in his first season as a free safety, it seems all three of those themes came out of his big hit on Austin Peay's unassuming tight end midway through the second quarter.
It was essentially a rite of passage for Henry, and something that will carry forward the remainder of the season.
"I hope they know I'm going to come up and support the run," Henry said following UW's 70-3 win over APSU. "If you are running a guy across the middle and you think you're going to complete that ball, I hope those guys are scared."
Not typically known for his big hits, Henry finds success being a technical tackler. He won't necessarily launch himself at a "kill" shot each time he has an opportunity, instead settling for the sure tackle.
Plenty of times a player will go for the big hit, much like a baseball player tries to swing harder to park a home run. But most of the time you oversell yourself, you'll wind up being out of position and burned.
That is something Henry is pretty good about.
"Everybody wants you to be able to tackle a certain way and everybody wants that killer shot," Henry said. "Every tackle isn't a killer shot. That's how people end up missing from time to time. I just try to come up and make the plays and the tackles I know I'm supposed to make.
"When an opportunity comes up in a game for me to make a big hit that could definitely be a momentum changer and that's what I did."
That's a job usually reserved for strong safety Jay Valai, though.
"A lot of the players were giving him a hard time on the sideline, but it doesn't bother him at all," Henry said. "Everybody knows when Jay Valai has an opportunity he's definitely going to take advantage of it. He's been that guy for forever.
"When his chance comes believe me, somebody is going to feel it."
Hard hits aside, it seems as though Henry is settling into his role as a strong safety. With different assignments, different reads and different portions of the field to cover, Henry has endured a bit of a transitional period.
Now, four games into his first season at the position, the junior is starting to become noticeable during games. And that's meant in an entirely good way.
"He's settling in pretty nice," Valai said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, with the first game in the Big Ten, I think free safety is going to be a little different for him.
"I think Aaron is prepared and he's going to be ready to go."
Valai brings up a valid point.
No longer are the Badgers going to be graced with inferior wide receiver prospects. That's not discrediting the players UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State and Austin Peay have, it's just that the Big Ten wide receivers are generally a different breed.
Look at Michigan State for example. Starting wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham both stand 6-foot-2 and average 210 pounds. Only Keshawn Martin (5-foot-11) stands below the six-foot mark of the top three MSU receivers.
They are fast, physical and generally big playmakers for a Spartan offense led by Kirk Cousins.
On the season, those three receivers are responsible for nearly 60 percent of Cousins' passing yardage. In short, they are a step up from the non-conference receivers the Badgers have seen.
A key entering Saturday's game will circle around the Badgers ability to not only cover those receiving threats, but also get them down after they make the catch.
"I definitely feel like I'm getting better because week in and week out at practice our coaches harp on that," Henry said. "I mean, they harp on that. I kind of stop worrying about how to tackle. When guys start to worry about how to tackle and what kind of position they're going to be in, that's when they miss them. Me, I'm starting to have that mindset.
"I want to go in there at the proper angle, but I'm going to go in there and try to make the proper tackle."
Against Arizona State, it seemed as though Henry initially hit a Sun Devil receiver hard enough to jar the ball loose inside the end zone late in the first half. Though replays showed the receiver dropping the ball prior to the hit, Bielema believes a reputation is starting to brew around UW's opponents in regards to UW's hard hitting safeties.
"He's kind of had a hit in every ball game," Bielema said. "That stuff shows up on film. You look at the game against Arizona State, I thought his hit jarred it out. In reality the ball was out before Aaron had hit him. You know, he had had a hit in the other games, maybe those receivers are starting to think about where No. 7 is.
"It's making a statement on film."
And that's some visibility that will do nothing but help the Badger secondary throughout the remainder of the season.