Editor’s Note:Leading up to Saturday’s Northern Illinois-Wisconsin game, the Daily Chronicle will provide readers with stories about the Badgers from the Wisconsin State Journal as part of a content sharing agreement.
MADISON, Wis. – Junior cornerback Marcus Cromartie is ready for his opportunity.
Cromartie has performed well as the nickel back for the University of Wisconsin football team. But with Devin Smith out, possibly for the season, with a left ankle injury, Cromartie becomes a starter.
“The coaches definitely trained me in this offseason as a ‘one,’ ” Cromartie said. “I don’t feel like there’s going to be such a jump for me going from nickel to a starter.”
But the changes don’t stop there for a UW defense coming off a 35-0 victory over Oregon State. UW coach Bret Bielema was still awaiting word, as of his Monday news conference, whether Smith would be out for the season.
The ripple effect of Smith’s injury means no fewer than three positions will be impacted when the Badgers go to five defensive backs in passing situations on Saturday against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field.
“We’ve got some issues we’ve got to deal with,” defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “But we’ll sort through it.”
With Cromartie replacing Smith, who was hurt in the third series against the Beavers, junior strong safety Shelton Johnson moved to nickel back.
That brought sophomore Dezmen Southward off the bench to see his most extensive playing time as the strong safety in the nickel.
The Badgers were in that formation often, even on early downs, against the Beavers’ three-receiver formations.
“As a DB, any time we can get another DB on the field, we’re happy,” Southward said. “We like our guys out there. We think, no matter who’s on the field, we can get stops.”
Still, it’s an issue moving forward, given so many positions are impacted.
Based on the way Cromartie has played, he seems like the least of the concerns.
When asked for his reaction after Smith went down, Cromartie said, “It’s time to play. I’ve got a role in nickel, I kind of accepted that role and tried to make as many plays as I could. Devin goes down, I know coach Ash has a ‘next-man’ mentality. I just came in and tried to make as many plays as possible.”
Cromartie had a good camp and at one point was pushing Smith for the starting job.
“I wouldn’t anticipate there’s going to be anything different with ‘Cro,’ ” Ash said. “He has prepared himself well for this opportunity and is going to be just fine.”
Johnson gives the coaches the flexibility of playing their best five defensive backs, since he has the coverage skills to line up against slot receivers.
“It makes us that much more versatlile as a group, knowing if one of our corners goes down, our safety can do that,” Southward said.
The third cornerback now is redshirt freshman Peniel Jean and behind him are true freshmen Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden, who is due back this week after missing preseason camp with a stress fracture in one leg.
Senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus, the other starter, has been telling the young cornerbacks they have to be ready to contribute – and that was before Smith was hurt.
“We’ve got a group of guys that really want to work,” Fenelus said of the young players. “Those guys are going to be really good, they’ve just got to keep working. They listen.”
One encouraging sign for Ash was the defense broke up 10 passes against Oregon State. Four were tipped passes at the line of scrimmage, three by defensive linemen and one by linebacker Chris Borland, who also got another one on a near interception.
The other five were by defensive backs, with two by Fenelus and one each by Smith, Southward and walk-on cornerback Andrew Lukasko.
“We were around the ball,” Ash said. “If you’re consistently around the ball, you’re giving yourself a chance to make those plays.”
Back-to-back plays in the third quarter gave Ash reason to be optimistic about overcoming the loss of Smith.
On third-and-10, Oregon quarterback Sean Mannion hit running back Jovan Stevenson with a check down, but Cromartie’s sure tackle limited it to an 8-yard gain.
The Beavers went for it on fourth down and tried an end around with Brandin Cooks. Free safety Aaron Henry dove at Cooks’ legs and missed, but Johnson was there to clean up, slinging Cooks out of bounds for a 1-yard loss.
“Those are just things we see in practice,” Ash said. “That’s why they’re out there on the field on game day. Those are routine plays they make every day. It’s nice to see them do that in a game.”