Sept. 14, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- As Wisconsin’s starting cornerbacks, Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith share immense responsibilities at the most unforgiving position on defense. As freshman roommates, they weren’t into sharing much of anything.
“We definitely butted heads,’’ said Smith, a fifth-year senior from Coppell, Texas. “It was typical things any roommate goes through. I was a single child and I wasn’t used to sharing a room or sharing anything with anybody.’’
Cromartie, a fifth-year senior from Mansfield, Texas, grew up pretty much the same way. “You go from living by yourself to having a roommate,’’ he said, “and people just treat their stuff different. There was a little clash.’’
But they’ve long since ironed out their differences.
“As the years went on, we’ve definitely grown a lot closer and become really good friends,’’ Smith said. “We’ve learned a lot about each other and we’ve built a good strong chemistry, on and off the field.’’
Cromartie used one word to describe their friendship.
“Competitive,’’ he said. “That’s the case whenever you play the same position as somebody. He played more than me at first then I got my chance last year when he got hurt and now he’s hungry to show that he can still play.
“I tell him that I think I’m the best corner on this team; he tells me that he thinks he’s the best. We compete like that every day in practice. He makes me better; I hope I can make him better. That’s all you can wish for in a teammate.’’
A former teammate, Antonio Fenelus, rejoined the mix recently after the undrafted free agent got cut by the Indianapolis Colts. Fenelus, a first-team All-Big Ten cornerback, is back in school and serving as a student assistant coach.
“He’s a full-time student so we’re not trying to eat up all of his time,’’ said UW coach Bret Bielema. “But any time we’re on the field, he can work with our younger players, guys like Reggie Mitchell and Terrance Floyd.
“They’re both one step away from playing for us, and Antonio has been a great influence on them. Antonio was a great player not so much because he was a great athlete but because of the way he played the game.’’
Bielema added that Fenleus hasn’t yet become fully invested in coaching because “he’s still holding out the hope that somebody in the NFL will call him.’’
Until then, the Badgers are the beneficiaries.
That includes Cromartie, who roomed with Fenelus for three years.
“He’s like a brother to me,’’ Cromartie said. “He just wants me to get better. Every little thing, even if the play doesn’t come to my side, he’s going to coach me up. Sometimes, though, he gets to nagging.’’
Bonding is big with DBs, whether celebrating or commiserating.
“We’re the most passive-aggressive people on the team,’’ Cromartie said. “We probably argue more than anybody, but it’s more of a brotherhood thing.
“We hang out together more than any other position group in the summer and we talk to each other more. When we butt heads, we’re like brothers.’’
The Oregon State loss was the equivalent of a head-butt. It hurt, a lot
“Being back-to-back Big Ten champions, we can’t think anybody is going to roll over because we’re Wisconsin,’’ Cromartie said
“We always have to be hungry and we have to show the same kind of passion and aggression when we were coming off a 7-6 season (2008).
“We have to play with a chip on our shoulder -- as if someone is trying to take something away from us.’’
Last Saturday, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion threw for 276 yards, but he had only three completions longer than 20. The longest was 33.
As a result, the Beavers managed just one touchdown and 10 points. They were only 5-of-17 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth-down conversions.
“The one thing we wanted to accomplish,’’ Bielema said, “was that we wanted to keep the ball in front of us. We’ve been giving up too many big plays.
“You go in with the theory of giving up a couple of hitches. You just don’t want the ball to get behind you.’’
More and more offenses have resorted to a “quick,’’ or short-throw, game in which the quarterback will take a short drop and get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possibly -- which is particularly inviting against “soft corners.’’
That’s part of the “bend but don’t break’’ approach where the cornerback is giving the receiver a “cushion” before the snap. By playing soft on the corner, the defense is protecting against deep throws and the potential for big plays.
“Five-yard gains aren’t going to kill us, but 30- or 40-yard gains will,’’ Cromartie explained. “It’s about making the tackle and living for another down.
“If they’re completing too many five and six-yard hitches and slants, we’re going to come up (on the receiver) and make the adjustment.
“But in the beginning of the game, you want to make sure you’re tackling and not allowing any yards after the catch, which can really kill you.’’
Drew Meyer would not likely be mistaken for an athlete because of his title or role as the punter on the UW football team. But that would be a mistake.
Consider: Meyer was an outstanding lacrosse player at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis.
As a senior, Meyer scored twice in Arrowhead’s 11-6 win over Waunakee in the sectional final playoff game. Waunakee had been ranked No. 1 in the state.
Meyer started playing lacrosse when he was 10.
“I played attack, which is fun because you can get some assists and goals and you also get to rest for half the game; you get to just chill,’’ said Meyer, a redshirt freshman.
“You get to be aggressive in lacrosse when you’re running around smacking each other with sticks. And you get to be an athlete because you’re thinking on your feet. It helped conditioning-wise for football.’’
Now consider: Meyer intercepted a pass in the 2011 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star game and returned it for a touchdown. UW fullback Derek Watt also had a “pick-six’’ for the South team, which won, 30-0.
“I was there for placekicking and punting, but we had a limited number of DBs,’’ said Meyer, who played cornerback in high school. “So I went to the coach the first day and said, ‘Can I do anything else? Can I play DB, too?’
“On the interception, I was in the right place at the right time. I think it was a reverse pass. It wasn’t the best ball thrown, so I got a little lucky with that.’’
The bottom line? Don’t assume kicking specialists aren’t athletes.
“We don’t always get the respect that the other athletes get,’’ Meyer said. “At the same time, they’re out there doing the things (at the collegiate level) that we only dreamed about doing when we were growing up.’’
Meyer’s predecessor with the Badgers was Brad Nortman, who played linebacker at Brookfield Central and was named the conference’s co-perimeter defensive player of the year as a senior.
Nortman is now punting for Carolina in the NFL.
Meyer and Nortman have stayed in touch, and traded notes.
“As punters, we’ve done the same thing hundreds of times,’’ Meyer said, “whether in Camp Randall in front of 80,000 or in our backyard. And it’s the same kick every time. You have to trust yourself, your values and what you believe in.’’
That was the best advice that Nortman could give to Meyer. So far, he hasn’t disappointed. At Oregon State, Meyer nearly averaged 40 yards on seven punts, including three that were downed inside the 20.
That was the good news, and the bad.
Less from a punter is always more.
“It’s fun to get out there and contribute,’’ said the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Meyer said. “But the less we’re doing it, the better the team is playing. I don’t mind sitting and watching those guys put up points.’’
UW linebackers coach Andy Buh has the utmost respect for Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton. While Buh was on the staff at Nevada, he tried recruiting Keeton out of Cypress Creek High School in Houston.
“I know him on a personal level and he’s a stand-up kid,’’ Buh said. “I was really proud of what he did last year in terms of being thrown in there against Auburn and he almost beat them.’’
A year ago, Utah State, led by Keeton, then a true freshman, almost pulled off the upset at Auburn, the defending national champions. Rallying for two touchdowns in the final minutes, the Tigers escaped with a 42-38 win.
Utah State finished with more total offense than Auburn (448-364), including 227 rushing yards. Keeton completed 21-of-30 passes for 213 yards and ran just enough against the Tigers to keep the defense honest.
“We have to have controlled rush lanes obviously,’’ Buh said of the challenge that Keeton poses as a runner. “There are certain things that we have to do to keep our eyes on him in both the pass game and the run game.
“Basically, it comes down to good techniques -- playing with square shoulders and with your inside foot up; really controlling our movements.’’
Last week, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Keeton set personal highs in just about every statistical category while sparking the Aggies to a win over Utah. Keeton completed 22-of-32 for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
He also rushed 17 times for 86 yards.
“They’re a program on the rise,’’ Buh said of Utah State. “Their coach, Gary Andersen, has done a tremendous job. If people knew what he inherited, they’d be amazed at the job that he has done since then.’’
Last season, Utah State trailed Nevada 10-0 before rallying for a 21-17 win. The Aggies battled back from double-digit deficits three times for victories in 2011; and six times over the last two years.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,’’ Buh said.
The Badgers nearly rallied from a 10-0 deficit at Oregon State. After scoring at 1:24 of the fourth quarter, making it 10-7, UW placekicker Kyle French executed a “middle dribble’’ onside kick; the equivalent of baseball’s drag bunt.
The Big Ten officiating crew ruled that French had recovered the loose ball. But the Pac-12 replay official in the press box overturned the call on video review. At least one camera angle showed an Oregon State player touching the ball first.
Buh was responsible for designing the onside kick.
“Ever since I’ve been coaching, I’ve always kept my eye on special teams,’’ Buh said, “and I’ve been blessed by being around some really good special teams coordinators at San Diego State, Fresno State, Stanford and Nevada.
“That was one of the things I picked up. But that wasn’t the type of onside kick we would have looked at several years ago because the ‘bounce’ kick was such an easy onside kick, and everybody was doing it.’’
Among the NCAA rule changes for this season, the receiving team can signal for a fair catch on an onside kick, even after it has taken one bounce. The kicking team can’t interfere with the catch or make contact in the process of the catch.
Even though the Badgers weren’t awarded the ball last Saturday on French’s onside kick, Buh said, “That was pretty cool to line that scheme up and have them execute it as well as they did.’’
Less, again, is more. He’s hoping that’s the last time that he has to call for an onside kick. But, at least, he knows that it works.