April 24, 2010

Post spring camp: Cornerbacks

MADISON - With new secondary coach Chris Ash at the helm it became obvious that players under his tutelage would be held accountable for their actions, both good and bad.

He demands excellence and believes the only way of reaching it is through instant feedback on a play-by-play basis. That way, when something goes well or something goes awry, the player responsible will know exactly what to continue doing or what needs changing up.

With all 15 practices from spring camp in the book, it has become evident that no positional unit benefited more from the change in coaching style than the UW cornerbacks.

Devin Smith is slowly morphing his style into one that presses opposing receivers within the first five yards. Antonio Fenelus, who was probably the most consistent corner throughout spring, was able to fully utilize his physical style of play.

Niles Brinkley, when not injured, seemed to make strides while remaining consistent throughout camp. Dezmen Southward, while still raw, seemed to develop in a more rapid manner with more repetitions and Marcus Cromartie wasn't afraid to mix it up and get physical with players on the other side of the ball.

Overall, it seemed the core of corners were in favor of the more up front and in your face style that coach Ash brought to UW after a stint at Iowa State.

"He's just consistently staying on us and pushing us," Fenelus said late in spring drills. "He's making us strive to be the best. Coach Ash is just that coach that will stay on you no matter what, if you're making a good play or a bad play.

"He stays on you and asks why you made that play or why you messed up that play."

It can be said that the true improvement of the secondary, particularly the corners, won't be realized until the team plays an actual game against opponents they don't see everyday. Still, other than the bevy of reps each player received, it was clear that both individual goals and team goals were being met.

Anytime a coach comes in it takes a bit of time to fully integrate their style into the scheme of things. At the same time, it takes a while for the player to adjust to a different style, one that was completely different than that of former position coach Kerry Cooks.

In a sense, this spring camp offered a fresh start for the corners that were coming off a rather mediocre season a year ago.

Smith, who wants to be known as the No. 1 cornerback on the team, was focused on finding a consistency both he and the coaches can rely on.

"I'm just trying to get adjusted to the new coaching style and different techniques that he's teaching us," Smith said. "Overall, I think I've improved as a player. I need to just work on my consistency, but I think I've made a lot of strides.

"My man coverage has been a lot better this spring."

For Smith, the focus on man coverage starts completely on his technique. In season's past, UW was primarily focused on being a cover three or cover four team and relied on zone coverage to produce defensive success.

This season, it seems as though Ash is more content playing man coverage, which puts the onus on the players to buy into the system and produce. Smith took on that attitude throughout spring camp.

"I'm trying to work on my technique a little more so I'm getting a lot better at it," Smith said. "I'm a lot more comfortable with it than I was last year."

Fenelus, a player that ran with Smith on the No. 1 defense as Brinkley recovered from a hamstring injury, made great strides throughout the spring.

In high school, Fenelus made the most of his opportunities as a physical, bump and run style cornerback. So, with Ash and his aggressive style, it should come as no surprise that Fenelus would succeed as a more physical specimen.

"It's staying focused and being mentally prepares," Fenelus said. "When you go in there to watch film you see yourself make that mistake. You just know that you can't go out there and make that same mistake."

Fenelus was a bit slow out of the gates when spring camp started. That consistency he was searching for was eluding him during the first week as he continually got beat on long plays. However, as spring wore on, his improvement was obvious. By the end, he wasn't giving up big plays anymore, he wasn't missing tackles and he looked very comfortable in Ash's system.

Come fall camp, Fenelus has an opportunity to secure a starting spot whether Brinkley is healthy or not.

Speaking of Brinkley, the senior corner was a bit hard to read during spring as a nagging hamstring issue limited him. He missed a good chunk of practice, so finding a comfort level was anything but easy to do. When he returned to practice late in camp, he didn't look inconsistent as much as he looked a bit rusty.

By the time fall camp starts, Brinkley will likely be healthy which should translate into an interesting battle with Fenelus and Smith for the starting gig. He is the most experienced player at the position and has proven he can handle the load throughout a Big Ten season.

Behind those three, Marcus Cromartie and Dezmen Southward seemed to be the most impressive corners in the rotation.

Cromartie, a player blessed with great size and speed, still needs to find a comfort zone on the field. He has proven he can play, and succeed, in both man and zone coverage schemes, it's just finding a happy medium. When he is off, he's pretty far off. When he's on, he usually is primed to make a bunch of big plays.

Like a hitter coming out of a slump, Cromartie is capable of rattling off big plays. It's just finding that comfort level that helps shorten the gap between the two extremes Cromartie goes through.

Then there is Southward. As a young, and very raw player, Southward really started to make strides during his first spring camp. Observantly, he is probably one of the fastest players on the team and that lets him recover for his still progressing technique. He probably won't be able to contribute much to the rotation this upcoming season, but he could play a major role on special teams.

There is no doubt, however, that Southward has all the necessary tools to be a successful corner by the time his career is finished. It's just a matter of getting the experience and reps.

Overall, it seemed as though the coaching staff was pleased with the progress the cornerbacks made throughout spring camp.

"I thought with the three corners coming in (Brinkley, Smith and Fenelus) we should have some healthy competition," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "I think Antonio has probably been our most consistent performer all spring, but Devin really competed this last week really well.

"Niles stood out to me today (spring game) with his pass breakups and some of the stuff he was doing."

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