Lucas at Large: Safeties confident 'grind' will lead to greater things

FB_120828_Johnson_Shelton.jpeg

The dawning of that first "Game Week'' is not only a starting point, but a finish line; whereby college football players are exiting the grind of training camp and entering a new season with the anticipation of basking in the sunlight that washes over every 0-0 team before that first kickoff.

It is no different for Wisconsin's starting safeties, Shelton Johnson and Dez Southward, who have their own "likes'' and "dislikes'' from three weeks of practices -- some two-a-days, some under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium -- all geared to get them ready for potentially a 14-game season.

"I like being able to focus on just football,'' said Johnson, a fifth-year senior from Carrollton, Texas. "During training camp, it's football all day -- this is unlike any other time of the year when you have academics and outside responsibilities -- and you have a good opportunity to get better every day.''

Citing the team camaraderie that has been building since the first practice on Aug. 6, Southward said, "It's a ton of time to get to know the guys around you. You learn the most about these people in training camp because you really get to focus just on football; really that's all there is here.''

That bonding process can lead to a special experience, according to Southward, a junior from Sunrise, Fla. It's special, he said, because it's shared with the "people who are with you on game day'' and the "guys you're going to war with.'' That would be the UW coaches and his teammates.

So what's there not to like about training camp?

"I dislike how my body feels,'' Johnson said. "It's a grind out here.''

"We all love to play football,'' said Southward, "but there's a certain point where your body ...''

He groaned out loud. How would he translate the body language? 

"It's like I need a break,'' he said.

That aside, Southward and Johnson have each tried to meet certain objectives in August.

"I came into camp to gain more confidence,'' said Southward, who has only three career starts. "I know what I can do; everybody knows what I can do. But I have to do it more consistently. I feel like I've been able to do that. Man, I'm light years where I was, and I'm excited about where I can get to.''

Southward didn't play organized football until his senior year of high school.

So his growing pains have been more pronounced than others.

"I still have things that I definitely have to get better at,'' he said.

Since one of his starting opportunities came in the Rose Bowl -- Johnson made room for him by shifting to nickel back -- what was the biggest lesson that Southward learned from last season?

"I remember a lot of mental breakdowns -- a lot of what-ifs, a lot of could've, would've, should've (against Oregon),'' he conceded. "From my point of view, I learned to keep grinding. I know that I've said training camp can be tough because it's just such a grind. But that's different.

"As far as grinding during a season, it's putting that last week behind you and putting everything into the week ahead. From that Tuesday when you get the game plan all the way through Friday, you have to learn as much as you can and truly go out and apply it on Saturdays.''

Johnson, the fourth-leading tackler and a tri-leader in interceptions with four last season, came into training camp with a different level of confidence than Southward. "But honestly I want to be more confident in my abilities,'' he said, "in what the coaches say is 'pulling the trigger' a bit more often.''

Pulling the trigger? "Taking a shot,'' Johnson explained. "I know last year when I did that -- when I pulled the trigger -- I was able to make some plays. What I learned was that the little things matter. The games at Michigan State and Ohio State really emphasized how it's a game of inches.''

Johnson and Southward's partnership at safety is just beginning to grow.

Their friendship as teammates as been maturing for years.

"Our relationship is good,'' Johnson said. "He was best friends with my roommate (former UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus). And since they were locked at the hip, he was always at the house.''

"From competing against him to now being across from him (in the deep secondary),'' Southward said, "it's been a blast and there's nobody in the country that I would rather go to war with.''

Regarding the graduation loss of Fenelus, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, Southward said, "We miss him already. He was in many ways the heart and soul of the DB group. He really brought us together. He made us laugh. He showed us how to work. He was a great example.''

Who fills that void? "We're filling that void right now collectively,'' Southward said. "When you see someone who's down, who's maybe not as excited as he was the day before, you try to pump him up a little bit. We've kind of done that as group -- me, Devin, Cro and Shelton.''

Devin is Devin Smith, who's returning from an injury redshirt.

Cro is Marcus Cromartie, who started 13 games at cornerback last season.

Along with Johnson, Smith and Cromartie are seniors.

"I guess I'm the young man,'' said Southward. Laughing, he added, "I still feel old.''

Johnson and Southward were on the same page when it came to describing the impact that first-year secondary coach Ben Strickland has had on their development during this training camp.

Strickland was one of the team captains of the 2007 UW team.

"Coach Strick gives us a different kind of perspective on the coaching side of things,'' Johnson said. "Typically during camp, you get the impression that the coaches really don't know what you're going through. But Coach Strick has been through all of this before as a player.''

Said Southward, "He's had a huge impact. He's one of the guys who has really helped me be more consistent. As soon as he got the job, he was straight-up with me. He told me, 'We believe in you, we understand you have a lot of talent, but we want to turn this talent into something special.'''

That's what Southward was yearning to hear. 

"He (has been there every step of the way with me,'' he said. "Anytime I struggle or I may get down on myself, he's right there to pick me up with a word of encouragement. It's great to have people like that in your corner.''

Johnson could say the same thing after being elected as one of six UW team captains.

"Having your teammates, the people that you're around every day, show their respect back to you is a real honor,'' Johnson said. "Especially coming from the position I was in my freshman year. I really didn't know if I was going to be here or not.''

Feeling like he had slipped through the cracks, Johnson considered leaving the program.

"It goes through everyone's mind as you start slipping down that depth chart,'' Johnson said. "Even my roommate (Fenelus) thought about leaving for a second. Everybody reaches that breaking point where either you can pack up and move on, or you can get it together.''

He chose the latter, and he's glad that he did.
ON WISCONSIN