LINCOLN, Neb. — D’Cota Dixon’s teammates on the University of Wisconsin football team are getting used to him making big plays, but his game-sealing safety last week against Northwestern took even them by surprise.
“I was running next to him in coverage,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said, “and I was like, ‘Whoa, where is D’Cota going?’ ”
Wherever UW’s junior safety was going, he was in a hurry to get there.
“He came out of the side of my vision and it literally looked like he was shot out of a cannon,” outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “He came 100 miles an hour at that quarterback. I was confused because on the play call he was the flat defender, but he triggered really quick when he saw no one was in the flat and was able to pull down the quarterback.”
Of all the things to remember about the eye-catching play on which Dixon came flying up to drop Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson in the end zone, one stands out: As fast as he looked, Dixon is probably the slowest member of UW’s starting secondary. Of course, slow is a relative term with this group.
When ninth-ranked UW and Nebraska meet Saturday night at Memorial Stadium to determine first place in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division, the secondary the Badgers put on the field almost certainly will be the fastest in school history.
Senior Derrick Tindal and junior transfer Nick Nelson have excellent speed at cornerback and Dixon and Natrell Jamerson give UW something it has rarely had on defense, two safeties who can flat-out run. Even freshman nickel back Dontye Carriere-Williams has terrific speed.
For UW, the key to turning a fast secondary into a really fast secondary was moving Jamerson from nickel back to safety this season. The fastest player on the team since the day he showed up on campus as a freshman, Jamerson, now a senior, is the perfect safety for the spread-out modern game. He has changed the look in UW’s secondary.
Jamerson and Dixon were all over the field against Northwestern. Jamerson had two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown after turning the corner and then turning on the jets. Dixon made plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage, evidence the former linebacker is playing a lot faster now that he has a full season of starting under his belt and is more comfortable at the position.
“(The secondary is) very athletic, whether it’s at corner or at safety,” first-year defensive coordinator and former All-America safety Jim Leonhard said. “Obviously, when you move Natrell to safety, things change from an athletic standpoint. He’s got great speed, great twitch. But across the board, we feel like we’ve got guys that can run. We want to challenge receivers and get in their face, so obviously that athleticism helps them.”
That, in turn, helps UW, giving Leonhard the confidence to play man-to-man defense all over the field. UW’s speed, experience and growing confidence on the back end allow Leonhard to blitz frequently and creatively up front, something the Badgers did very well in sacking Thorson eight times.
“I think it allows them to play more aggressive,” Dooley said of the secondary. “They know that if they jump routes or if someone runs a double move or something like that, they have that kind of athleticism and speed to maybe regain their step. I think it just allows them to go out there and play fast. And then it gives us the trust to know that our back end is going to do their job and do it well so that we can be aggressive as well and get after the quarterback.”
No one appreciates that more than Leonhard, who is tied with Jamar Fletcher as UW’s career leader in interceptions with 21. Over the years, UW has generally had adequate but not blazing speed at cornerback, one safety with good range and another one who was physical and could stuff the run. Names like Michael Caputo, Jay Valai and Joe Stellmacher come to mind in the latter role.
Now, there’s speed across the board.
“There’s no question it opens up the playbook when you feel like physically you can match most teams’ speed,” Leonhard said. “It definitely helps me out having those guys. As a coordinator, there’s a lot of things that are available, whereas if you don’t have that athleticism, maybe you’re not quite as confident making certain calls.”
UW’s souped-up secondary will be tested against the Cornhuskers, who have dynamic playmakers at wide receiver in Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El and, for a change, a tall, strong-armed pocket passer in transfer Tanner Lee. Lee is coming off his best game, but when pressured he has really struggled.
UW’s secondary will have to cover well enough so Leonhard is comfortable sending pass rushers at Lee early and often.
“I do think we’ve got good speed in the secondary,” coach Paul Chryst said. “It certainly helped moving Natrell to safety and D’Cota, boy, he triggered on that last play. And then our corners, we do feel like they can run. I think the speed alone isn’t what gives you confidence, it’s that we think they’re pretty good players. Now, I think we’ll be tested this week unlike any week that we’ve been tested in the back end. That’s good for them.”
No, that’s good for UW.