2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Cornerbacks
The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.
AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.
With another year under its belt, Wisconsin's cornerbacks helped the defense finish among the best in the nation during the 2019 season. UW ranked 12th in the FBS in passing yards allowed (187.4) and 13th in team passing efficiency defense (113.19).
Six players in the position group started games for the Badgers, a credit to the depth in the room for coordinator Jim Leonhard. Now the question heading into next season is how will the competition within the room continue to strength the corners overall, and for that matter, who continues to emerge?
- Caesar Williams (14 games, seven starts): 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 10 pass breakups
- Faion Hicks (14 games, 12 starts): 32 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup
- Rachad Wildgoose (13 games, eight starts): 22 tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception, six pass breakups
- Donte Burton (12 games, two starts): Seven tackles, 0.5 sacks, two pass breakups
- Deron Harrell (eight games, four starts): Nine tackles, four pass breakups
- Semar Melvin (four games, two starts): Four tackles, one pass breakup
- Alexander Smith (14 games): Four tackles, one pass breakup, one punt block
In terms of overall play, giving up only 43 and 64 yards receiving against non-conference opponents Central Michigan and Kent State pops out. Looking at tougher opponents, however, Wisconsin held Oregon to a season-low 138 yards passing -- almost 130 yards under its average heading into the 2020 Rose Bowl matchup. A 38-0 win over Michigan State in October also saw UW clamp down on Brian Lewerke and the Spartans' passing attack to the tune of 119 yards.
When looking at individual player performances, Williams' play against Minnesota's Tyler Johnson during the regular season finale inside TCF Bank Stadium stands out. His ability to breakup passes on consecutive plays -- on third and fourth downs with goal to go -- allowed Wisconsin to hold a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter. The offense took over and drove down the field 95 yards for a touchdown, hammering down the proverbial nail in the coffin and a Big Ten West division championship.
In the home finale against Purdue, third-string quarterback Aidan O'Connell and the Boilermakers' offense passed for 326 yards against Wisconsin's defense. Granted, there was some trickery involved, including a wide receiver pass that went for a score, but the divisional foe made some plays against the secondary.
After UW contained Ohio State in the first half of the Big Ten Championship game, quarterback Justin Fields and the Buckeyes' offense eventually exploded for 320 total passing yards and three touchdowns through the air to claim the conference title in early December.
Question for 2020: How Will Depth at Corner Strength the Group Further?
Wisconsin boasts a three-deep of corners with starting experience, and like after the 2018 season, it will be worth watching if there is separation within the position group from spring ball through fall camp before the Badgers kick off against Indiana on Sept. 4.
Hicks started the most games for UW this season and will be entering his fourth year in Madison. Speaking with AllBadgers.com during Rose Bowl media availability on Dec. 29, he believes he grew in a number of areas during his redshirt sophomore campaign.
"I think compared to my first year playing, just my technique, being confident in my abilities and going out there just covering the guys," Hicks said. "It's been fun to see myself just grow as a player."
Williams shined in the aforementioned set of downs at Minnesota in late November. He led the team in pass breakups, and he also placed first in the position group in tackles and tackles for loss. Can he improve even further in what will be his final year in Madison?
Wildgoose can play both on the outside and in the slot during nickel subpackages, holding him as a valuable piece to the secondary with such versatility. Harrell only played in eight games this season and did not suit up for the Rose Bowl, while Burton registered a key half-sack against the Ducks on Jan. 1 off a corner blitz.
Despite keeping his redshirt, first-year player Semar Melvin appears to be an intriguing prospect moving forward. A four-star signee according to Rivals for the 2019 class, he started against Minnesota and Ohio State at the end of the season.
There is also Alexander Smith, who will enter his third year at UW, and would-be redshirt freshmen James Williams and Dean Engram.
Maybe a secondary question for this position group lies with creating more takeaways in the former of interceptions. Wisconsin reeled in 12 picks in 2019, but the corners only recorded two of those.