I hate to start this off on a bad note, but think back to your darkest moment as a Badger football fan.
Ok, if you’re still here, I bet this moment involves a Badger DB doing something bad. It could be one of multiple B10 Championship games where the Badger DBs were simply too small to get jump balls or too slow to catch RBs. Maybe its Oregon skill players making the Badger DBs look like they had cement in their shoes. Or perhaps it’s one of many other coverage snafus in 2011. If you have a deeper memory it could be the mid-2000s teams not having the speed to defend spread offenses.
This isn’t exactly fair to the Badger DBs. In modern football, teams pass the ball a ton and even the best secondaries are going to get beat. Georgia had a team for of 4 and 5 star athletes get shredded by Baker Mayfield for 287 yards in last year’s Rose Bowl. The 2014 Ohio State team that embarrassed Wisconsin DBs put up 256 passing yards a month later against Alabama. It happens, frequently.
This also isn’t to say the Badgers haven’t had some good DBs, they have. Tindal, Shelton, Dixon, Ikegwuonu, Leonhard, Fletcher, Echols, Vincent, etc. Those are some fun names. However on the whole, its not a controversial statement to say that when matching up with elite teams, the Badgers fall short here. Other positions often matchup fine - the OL and RBs rival anybody, the defensive front 7, depending on the year, stacks right up there with any. The Badgers have had some good QBs as well. The 2018 team is loaded with receivers and they have a pretty good history at that position.
DBs are a different story. Not only do the good teams have the athletes to test the secondary, they’re able to spread them out and force the Badgers to have 5 or 6 guys that all can run with the 4 and 5 star WRs they can throw at them. We’ve seen the Badgers struggle since, well, forever doing this. Nelson and Tindal were the best CB duo since Fletcher/Echols, but Ohio State is able to get Joe Ferguson isolated on a future NFL WR, and that was that.
NFL Drafts are an imperfect way to look at college talent (see Jim Leonhard) but they haven’t put DBs into the NFL like they have other positions. In the past NFL draft, Nick Nelson and Natrell Jamerson joined Dez Southward and Jack Ikegwuonu as the only DBs drafted in the past decade.
This shows up in recruiting rankings as well. Since 2002, the average DB rating (247 composite) is .82. This is lowest among other positions recruited as heavily as DB.
Why is this? Common sense says there isn’t an in-state pipeline of DBs to rely on like there is for other positions, and common sense would be correct. Since 2002, only 18% of DBs are been from Wisconsin, whereas 32% of non-DB positions are from Wisconsin. The top in-state recruit at DB was Michael Trotter, a mid-3 star. Most of the ones they have recruited have been low 3 star or 2 star players.
So not only do they have to go out of state, they’ve got to go really out of state. Chryst has recently reached into Michigan, but its rare to get a DB from a bordering state.
Since 2002, the Badgers have gotten 30 four star recruits, just one was a DB - Jameson Wright in 2010, who lasted two years in the program. Its very difficult to pull guys that can write their own ticket anywhere, to spend winters in Madison.
With all the doom and gloom out of the way, looking at recent trends there are some some positive signs under Chryst. Of course we’re talking small samples here, but the average rating of a DB under Chryst is .85, bettering Bielema (.83), Andersen (.82) and late career, post-2002 Alvarez (.73) (the earliest dates reliable recruiting data is available).
What is Chryst doing different than his predecessors? A couple things jump out:
He is pulling guys from all over the country with 18 DBs from 11 different states
He’s recruiting taller athletes - only Madison Cone is shorter than 5’10” and most are 5’11’’ or taller
The recruiting nationally strategy is perhaps the most interesting. In many past recruiting cycles, the Badgers seem to be resigned to finding leftovers in Florida near signing day - some of these have been great, others not, either way it certainly seems more variable. Chryst has been able to (from an outsider’s perspective) hit on Plan A type players rather than waiting to see what’s available as signing day nears.
Perhaps the second bullet point - finding taller players - makes it easier to find his “type” and pull in guys who fit the profile but might not be on National radars.
Comparatively - there isn’t much of a sample on Gary Andersen but he seemed to prefer JUCO DBs (McEvoy, Reynard, Trezy) and the “leftovers” in Florida. The leftovers here were actually pretty good - Dixon and Tinal had great careers.
Beilema suffered from bad misses and fits the “fighting for leftovers” strategy a bit more. 47% of his CB recruits left the program before their eligibility were out. He did fine with some top DBs, but the lack of depth there showed up too often.
That brings us to this year and why maybe it’ll all be ok in the defensive backfield.
There was a lot of talk in spring about waiting for “the guy” to step up and take the #2 CB spot opposite DCW. Usually when no one separates its a bad thing, but this fall it feels a bit different. They’ve got many capable athletes all fighting for playing time - the optimistic take is that no one has separated because they’ll all decent players. We’ve heard Cesar Williams, Cone, Hicks and Harrell have all looked comfortable on the field. Maybe this is classic preseason optimism, but it feels a bit better than perhaps expected.
Even if the Badgers do have multiple guys step up this year, we’re certainly going to have some growing pains in 2018 with a very young secondary, perhaps awful, soul crushing growing pains, but for the first time in a while it seems like they’re inching closer to having the multiple bodies to compete with the big schools down the road.
Even with better DB recruiting getting the 4 and 5 star guys at this position isn’t going to happen. Having the depth and numbers is going to be what upgrades the secondary, and this might just be happening.