April 26, 2010

Post spring camp: Safeties

MADISON - When it comes to the UW secondary, it seems Jay Valai and Aaron Henry will have plenty to say.

Valai, always boisterous, is a heavy hitter focused on becoming more in tune with his pass coverage. Henry, a transplanted former cornerback, is focused on gliding into a position he hasn't played.

The two together will be relied on heavily this upcoming season to solidify a secondary that was average at best a season ago.

"I wanted to be more technically sound and more of a vocal leader," Valai said during spring camp. "We're just coming together as a unit. I think that's the main thing. I think if our team plays as one unit on the football field and one unit as a team it's going to be shown on the football field."

Throughout camp, it seemed as though Valai had been inching towards accomplishing his personal goals. Always thought of as a physical player, Valai looked to be sounder with his pass coverage. He wasn't always looking for the kill shot and seemed more determined to attack the ball and break towards making a play.

There were times he was out of position, but it looked like his speed helped him close the gap and make a play on the ball. He can cover a lot of ground in the secondary and that is exactly what a strong safety needs to do in order to find success on the field.

If he continues to improve on the groundwork he laid during spring camp, Valai will become an above average talent in the secondary. If he falls into a sense of complacency, he will be exposed.

With coach Chris Ash now representing the defensive backs it wouldn't be far fetched to see Valai remain focused throughout his entire senior season with hopes of reeling off his best season as a Badger.

"He's real technically sound and he'll get all over you, but he's doing it because he cares," Valai said. "I really respect that a lot. Coach Ash is a great coach and I really think he's helping me out and taking my game to the next level.

"Coach Ash is really helping me out technically and communication wise."

Joining Valai as a starting safety, as previously mentioned, is Aaron Henry. After suffering a nasty ACL injury during bowl prep practice his true freshman season, Henry has had a long road back to recovery.

A redshirt season and rocky sophomore season halted any momentum the Florida native had following his first few months on campus. A new coach and new position later, it seems as though Henry is starting to regain the confidence that helped him gain notice as a freshman.

"People always say when new coaches come in that they're able to see things that other coaches don't see," Henry said. "I really like coach Ash. He brings a different dynamic to the secondary. He's very, very fundamentally sound and a great, great coach."

It seemed like that change was needed for Henry. Just watching him practice, the air of confidence he commands is entirely noticeable. He looks to have shaken those jitterbugs out of his system and is playing with a great combination of speed and power.

The hesitancy he displayed a season ago when he tried getting back into the corner rotation doesn't seem to exist. He goes after each play with an intensity and form that suggests he is finally back mentally as well as physically.

"Mentally I'm great," Henry said. "I just want to come out here, make plays and be in a position to put my team in a position to go out there, do well and win games."

Henry admittedly said the knee was a problem a season ago. As a result, the then sophomore slipped down the depth chart and stumbled into a reserve role before eventually being moved to free safety.

"It was kind of bothersome," Henry said regarding his knee. "After a while when I wasn't in the rotation or what not, I didn't have the same mindset as far as strengthening it and doing extra things that I needed to do to elevate my game. Now I'm ready, back in action at a new position and new year.

"I'm just ready to go out there and play the game of football, the game I love so much and bring some new things to the table."

Perhaps the most interesting development over the course of spring camp was the progression of Conor O'Neill. A year ago at this time it seemed as if O'Neill was in the midst of a deep linebacker core that eventually saw both Mike Taylor and Chris Borland rise to the top of the depth chart.

As a result, O'Neill moved to safety during the off-season and actually performed quite well. He has speed that is more than adequate to reel in defenders, but he is still relatively raw at the position.

However, for anybody watching the spring game, it became evident that O'Neill has ball skills that routinely keep him around the play. He isn't afraid of contact and usually completes a tackle when he has an opportunity, particularly in one on one situations where he treats the situation like it's a personal challenge.

He is easing into the position and will likely factor into the rotation by the time his career in Madison is finished. He just needs to get more polished and more consistent on a play-by-play basis. He's not there yet, but he still has plenty of time, especially if he continues to progress as he has.

"Conor is a smart dude," Valai said. "He's working hard and he's grinding. Like coach Joe Rudolph said in there, you didn't come to Wisconsin to sit on the bench. You better want to start. If you didn't want to start you shouldn't be here in the first place. You better come with it everyday."

Shelton Johnson, who was wearing a cast on his right hand throughout the final portion of spring camp, seemed to make strides at times. However, he also proved inconsistent. Like most young players, the thing preventing Johnson from taking a step up the depth chart is his ability to make the routine plays on a routine basis.

Johnson has great size and good speed, it's just a matter of finding a comfort zone as a player. Obviously spring camp is a great time to accomplish those goals because reps are available. Whether he is able to continue making improvements in fall camp will be interesting, because as the opening game approaches, reps for the backups dwindle.

Finally, Josh Peprah, a seemingly willing and eager to learn player, is still a bit off. Like Johnson, it's just a matter of balancing the stand out plays with consistent play on an every down basis. There has to be a balance. If he achieves that, and finds that happy medium, he can be a good player for the Badgers. As a freshman, he has time to find that and with the tutelage of coach Ash, he will likely reach that level of play.

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