Sept. 20, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
Wisconsin cornerback Peniel Jean was watching some NFL highlights and almost all of the big plays involved quarterbacks and receivers executing back-shoulder throws -- fades or otherwise.
Whether the receiver was Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson or someone of lesser note, Jean noticed that "the corner had great position but the ball was put where he couldn't reach it."
Welcome to his world.
"That's the life we live playing cornerback," Jean said.
The back-shoulder pass was the subject of a story in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated which explored and explained how the "undefendable body-twisting technique" has been frustrating defenses.
One veteran defensive back declined to speak to the magazine on the record about defending the back-shoulder throw because when it's properly executed, he said, there's no way to defend it.
Among those quoted in the story was New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
"When I've got one of my guys one-on-one," Brees said, "I feel like no matter how well he's covered, there's a place I can throw the ball where my guy can catch it and their guy can't."
Last Saturday night, Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly completed a high percentage of back-shoulder fades against the UW secondary. Overall, he was 29-of-51 for 353 yards.
"It's something we can learn from," Jean said. "It was a great learning experience."
Kelly's favorite target was Jaelen Strong, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior college transfer. "He had great size," Jean said. "But he didn't have to jump for the ball -- the ball was just placed in a great area."
While Strong was impressive in finishing with a game-high 104 receiving yards, Jean kept coming back to the accuracy of Kelly, especially on the boundary. "There were some great passes," he said.
The Badgers are playing more man or press coverage than they have in the past and the back-shoulder fade is one way an offense can attack a DB who's playing over the top on a receiver.
If he's overly conscious of getting beat on the deep ball, it can leave him vulnerable to a quarterback who's adept at "throwing open" his target, or pinpointing the pass to the back shoulder.
So picture a defensive back turning his hips and running with a receiver who suddenly puts on the brakes and twists away from the defender and opens up to the ball, which is right on his hands.
When the back-shoulder throw is executed, good luck.
"It's definitely challenging because you don't know where the ball is and the receiver does," said Jean. "If you look back, by the time you turn back around, the ball is already there.
"When you're running down the field with a receiver, once they turn around, you have to put your hands up and play through it. You're going to get beat on some and you're going to win some."
For context, UW assistant coach Ben Strickland added, "They're going to make some plays. We want to be about 50/50 if they're tough plays. We'd like to make them all but that's probably not realistic."
Badgers coach Gary Andersen also has an understanding of the risk and reward. "You're going to have balls caught on you and you're going to have a PI (pass interference) if you play corner," he said.
But he wasn't down on his "starters" -- Jean, Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary. On the contrary, he pointed out, "I'm proud of those corners. Those three kids are really competing."
Even with the occupational hazards, they have adjusted nicely to the 3-4 alignment.
"In our old system, with our old staff, they were really on us about beating ourselves," said Jean, a junior from West Palm Beach, Fla. "But this defense is all about aggressiveness.
"Coach (Andersen) knows it's going to happen because he's putting us out there to compete and play man-to-man. When you do, you're going to get some PI calls."
The tradeoff is that almost every pass will be contested; a departure from the 4-3 scheme.
"We just have to understand it's a process and not get discouraged," Strickland said, "and we have to continue to compete and compete and compete and see what happens."
Turnaround is fair play. UW quarterback Joel Stave and slot receiver Jeff Duckworth burned Arizona State on a 51-yard pass play that put the Badgers in position to kick the game-winning field goal.
The play-call? A back-shoulder fade.
"He (Duckworth) was flying down the sidelines," Jean said, "and all of a sudden he turned around and caught the ball and their corner was nowhere to be found. It's just difficult to defend."
Although Purdue threw primarily to its running backs and tight ends against Notre Dame -- tailback Akeem Hunt is the leading receiver overall -- the Boilers no doubt went to school on ASU.
"I know Purdue is going to try and attack us on that (back-shoulder) throw," Jean said. "We know it's coming, so we can't play timid or scared."
He also knows what's coming with Big Ten play.
"I would say physicality," said Jean. "I'm not saying Arizona State was not physical. But it was a spread team and if (the receivers) are not getting the ball, they're mostly jogging.
"In the Big Ten, if the receivers are not getting the ball, they're going to attack you."
That's just the life they live on the corner.
UW wide receiver Jordan Fredrick was just entering his teen years when the streak began.
"Every time I think about Purdue," he said, "I think of the Orton fumble and Starks taking it back. Being a Badger fan (growing up), I've seen many of the games, and many of the big plays.
"That's just one that sticks in my mind."
Orton was Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton.
Starks was Wisconsin cornerback Scott Starks.
On Oct. 16, 2004, their paths intersected when the No. 5-ranked Boilermakers (5-0) played host to the No. 10-ranked Badgers (6-0) in West Lafayette, Ind.
In front of a stunned Homecoming crowd, and a national television audience -- the ESPN GameDay crew was on campus -- Orton called his own number and ran a bootleg with 2:36 left.
Purdue was clinging to a 17-14 lead and trying to run out the clock when Orton coughed up the ball upon being hit by Robert Brooks. The fumble was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by Starks.
The Boilermakers never got over that dramatic turn of events and lost four of their next six that season to finish with a 7-5 record (4-4 in the Big Ten). Since then, they're 48-55 (26-38).
For the Badgers, the memorable 2004 win was the first of seven straight over the Boilers.
Fredrick was a little foggy on the details of last season's game at Purdue. Maybe it was the rain. But he did remember "we rushed for a ton of yards and Montee had some big runs."
The Badgers gashed the Boilermakers for 467 rushing yards; Montee Ball had a career-high 247 and three touchdowns, James White had 124 and Melvin Gordon had 80.
Fredrick didn't have a catch -- Joel Stave attempted only 21 passes and completed 12 -- but he was a factor in the running game with his blocking, which is something he takes pride in.
"I've definitely worked on it," said Fredrick, a redshirt sophomore from Memorial High School in Madison. "When you're at Wisconsin, you're going to block for some great running backs.
"It's definitely grown on me, and it's something I'm starting to love. If that's got to be my role, if that's my niche and what I'm known for, then that's what I've got to do."
One thing you can't do is "hesitate" on your blocking assignment.
"You don't have time to flinch or you're going to get run over," said Fredrick, the son of former UW tight end Craig Fredrick, who played here in the early '80s. "I've done that before, I've felt that.
"You can't hesitate; you just have to be really aggressive. You've got to act like you're in the trenches, like the big guys. Obviously, it's not the same, but you've got to act like it is."
There are some obvious pitfalls to his job.
"The biggest thing is when you miss a block as a wide receiver everyone sees it," Fredrick said. "That's the thing you've got to get used to. I take it very hard; I don't like missing blocks at all.
"That's how you have to take it. If you miss a block, you can't be content or OK with it. We work on our techniques and then we fix it to make sure it doesn't happen again."
On bubble screens, Fredrick is often the lead blocker for Jared Abbrederis.
"It's about reading (the DB) because he has a two-way go, he can jump inside or outside," Fredrick said, "and your biggest thing is protecting the wideout first."
Abbrederis scored on a bubble screen against Tennessee Tech but it was erased on a penalty; a questionable one at that because the flag was thrown well after Abbrederis had left the area.
"That got called back because of me, I guess," said Fredrick, shrugging. "I'd love to argue it, but it was called. It's very upsetting, especially when it's a touchdown you're taking away from your buddy.
"It hurts but I just have to make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Through the first three games, Fredrick has six catches, the longest for 19 yards. Last season, he had 17 receptions, including his first career touchdown, which came against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
How does he get more involved in the passing attack?
"I just have to keep working in practice; I have to show them (the coaches) I can catch," he said. "If you drop balls in practice, they're not all of a sudden going to say, `Hey, Saturday, he'll catch it."'
Fredrick has been slowed by some nagging little injuries that "keep you from doing some things you want to do" but he's starting to feel better physically, which bodes well for the Big Ten season.
"Hopefully I can improve; I'm not even close to where I want to be," said the 6-4, 210-pound Fredrick. "That's how you've got to feel, and you just try to get there day by day."
Despite the seven-game winning streak in the series, he has a healthy respect for the Boilers.
"They stuck with Notre Dame (a 31-24 loss last Saturday) and they (the Irish) just played for the national championship," he said. "They're no one to take lightly."
Besides, it's the Big Ten opener. "It's a whole new level," said Fredrick, who also mentioned "the edge that we've got this week" in the aftermath of the Arizona State officiating debacle.
By his own estimation, there will be "120 players ticked off and 80,000 fans ticked off" for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Purdue at Camp Randall Stadium.
"The biggest thing now is to get over it," he said, "and show we're still in this thing for sure."
This thing? The Big Ten championship race.
Nate Hammon thought there was a possibility that he might get lost in the transition; not only the coaching transition, but the transition from high school quarterback to who knows what?
"Initially, I did (think that way)," he said. "I didn't know what position I was going to play."
At Milton (Wis.) High School, Hammon was a dual-threat quarterback. Illinois State recruited him as "athlete" and he verbally committed to the FCS school in Normal before the Badgers contacted him.
Former head coach Bret Bielema told Hammon that he would have a chance to earn a scholarship.
"When you grow up in Wisconsin, you want to play here," said Hammon, who wasn't ready to compete from the onset anyway. "I had surgery on my foot so it made it easier."
During last season's training camp, Hammon got moved from safety to receiver. The move was essentially predicted on taking advantage of his ball skills and running ability. He ran track in high school.
During his senior year, in fact, Hammon found himself competing against Kenosha Bradford's Melvin Gordon and Vonte Jackson in a WIAA Division 1 sectional meet.
Hammon won the long jump over Gordon and broke the Milton record in the process. He also finished a split-second behind Gordon in the 100 meters. Hammon and Gordon both qualified for state.
"He (Hammon) runs very well," said UW assistant coach Bill Busch.
During the coaching transition from Bielema to Gary Andersen, Ben Strickland was one of the assistants retained on Andersen's staff, and it was Strickland who tipped off Busch to Hammon.
"When we came here, we didn't know anybody and there were a few things uncertain at safety," Busch said. "Ben mentioned him (Hammon) and I said, `I'll take him, I'll try him out."'
Hammon, much to his delight, was returned to safety.
"And I felt like I got a new opportunity," said Hammon, who didn't play on defense at Milton. "I finally feel like I'm at a position where I can learn and be comfortable and keep getting better every day.
"Coach Busch has given me a great opportunity. I feel he actually believes in me."
That's definitely the case.
"What he can really do well is track the ball," Busch said of the 6-1, 196-pound Hammon, who wears No. 14. "He's got great hands, he moves very well and he's got a safety's body type.
"The big question was whether he would tackle anybody, which he will. We played him a lot as kind of a hybrid safety-outside linebacker (at Arizona State) because of who they were (on offense).
"He played a lot, probably between 50 and 60 snaps; probably 75 with special teams. The one thing he has is a very non-shakable demeanor. He has zero panic in him."
Most Badgers fans wouldn't know Hammon from Hammond; Chase Hammond, a junior wideout.
But they know who he is in Milton, a community of 5,549 some 30 miles from Madison.
"It's a pretty big deal (back home)," Hammon conceded. "People texted me after seeing me on TV (at Arizona State). It was pretty exciting. You feel like you're accomplishing something."
Busch has been busy this week getting Tanner McEvoy ready to play at safety.
"He's doing a very nice job for us," Busch said, "and he should get some reps in this game."
McEvoy is a transfer from Arizona Western. Since arriving on campus, he has moved from quarterback to wide receiver to safety. A wrist injury has impacted his development.
McEvoy played just one season of high school football at quarterback. Up until his senior year, he was a receiver and defensive back. He redshirted as a freshman quarterback at South Carolina.
Busch likes his natural athleticism, wherever he plays and whatever he does.
At 6-6 and 223 pounds, McEvoy looms as the biggest safety in college football.
"He has a high football intelligence, especially from the other side of the ball," said Busch, citing his quarterback experience. "He understands concepts and what they're doing and why (on offense).
"The sky is the limit for him and we expect to get him rolling Saturday."