September 16, 2009

Secondary fights to overcome shortfalls

MADISON, Wis. - Yes, many players missed practice time leading into Saturday's game against Fresno State. Yes, Aaron Henry, arguably the team's best corner, was sick and did not factor into the game much. Yes, the Bulldogs wide receivers dominated the secondary in the first half.

And yes, there were plenty of questions following Saturday's double-overtime win that needed to be answered. So caught up with the man in charge of the secondary, coach Kerry Cooks.

The following is a question and answer with Cooks.

Two games into the season for you guys, what have you been impressed with and what still needs to be worked on?

Cooks: I think the first game overall we really didn't get tested. So that was a hard game to evaluate. I think the Fresno game really gave us a good opportunity to kind of see where we are. I think, you know, as with anything (there was) some good and some bad.

I like the way that my free safety is playing right now. I think Chris Maragos is playing lights out and hope that he continues that. He's reading his keys, he's making a conscious effort to communicate and get people lined up the right way. He's solid in the open field tackles, space tackles.

I think Jay Valai is waiting for some plays to come his way, but he's not playing bad. You get the impression from last year because he's always flashed. But, right now, the offenses that we've been seeing just haven't allowed him to be as aggressive and showcase his ability.

Corners, I think those guys are just kind of up and down. They need to be more consistent. We need to be better with our eyes and we need to be better to certain reactions to three-step and double moves. I do like, for the most part, how those guys are challenging routes, how they're competing. I like how they're supporting one another, but again, the first two games have been good games for us and a great teaching tool. But it's a long season.

Do you kind of expect that with the corners. There are some young guys out there and not a ton of experience? Do you expect to hit some road bumps with those guys?

Cooks: Absolutely, absolutely. I told my young guys today, No. 10 and No. 26, Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus that they got baptized on Saturday. Devin with the 70-yard touchdown and Antonio with the post-corner in the end zone. Obviously as a coach you don't want to see that, but you know that it's going to anticipate. Aaron Henry went through it, Niles Brinkley went through it and Maragos went through it last year. Those are just part of the growing pains of being a defensive back.

Now, one thing that they did, was they didn't blink an eye. They came back out and we called press and we manned and then we pressed and be it No. 7 (Devon Wylie) or No. 2 (Seyi Ajirotutu), they're not scared.

That's a young thing. Maybe they're young enough and dumb enough not to really understand what's going on, but they went right back out. Devin had a great play on the 6-foot-4 wide receiver on the deep ball and Antonio had some solid tackles and solid coverage's in the second half. I feel like I have a lot of depth at corner, and now, they're just gaining that experience.

That's the type of attitude you have to have at corner isn't it? You get hit with a big play, you just got to…

Cooks: Got to have a short-term memory which is what I tell them. Which is good. All those guys, they get beat and it's going to happen. Obviously you don't want it to happen, but I think that we could have played a little bit better in the first half. We didn't play the way that we wanted to in the secondary. I believe all 21 of those points were Devin Smith, Aaron Henry and Antonio and that's been very uncharacteristic of our secondary since I've been here. I'm not saying that we don't give up points, but we usually don't give up the first 21.

The thing that I learned from that is that those guys are going to strain, they're going to fight. They're not going to let those big plays affect them. But, obviously those are the things that we need to work on and eliminate.

Did Fresno State throw some things at you that maybe you weren't expecting?

Cooks: They didn't, they didn't. And I tried to tell my guys, all my secondary guys, that those wide receivers, they'll be as good or comparable to anybody that we'll face in the Big Ten. You've got a 6-foot-4, 210-pound guy that can run and jump and is fast.

No. 7, I don't know, but he's been listed as a 4.28 40 guy. And then No. 5 (Marlon Moore) and No. 6 (Chastin West) are all solid wide receivers and then you add that on top of the two running backs. They've got some guys that are going to play on Sunday's.

So, I don't think that they threw anything at us that we didn't expect. I just think, hey, we were in a competitive fight and we hung in and ended up pulling it out. I give credit to Fresno because those boys wanted it just as bad as we did.

It was a gritty performance. With what you guys go through all week, all the flu stuff and missed practice time, were you pleased with how much heart your guys showed out there?

Cooks: Very proud of the guys and how they handled this last week. But, again, certain situations be it whatever it may be are going to occur through the season. The thing that you can't allow those guys to do is use them for excuses.

If you're going to be out here and this is your job, you're going to come out here and you're going to work and you got to perform. Fresno didn't care about any of that stuff that we went through. As the coach, you can't make it that big of a deal. If you do, then you're allowing your guys to have a way out. We tried to work them the way that we would normally work them.

In the first half obviously you gave up 21 points. In the second half, you don't give up anything until the field goal at the end to send it to overtime. Did the guys come out in the second half with a totally different mindset?

Cooks: You know what, I think they snapped into reality. I think that all the things that I was preaching throughout the week about hey, these wide receivers are this and they're pretty good and the running backs are good. Sometimes, those young guys, they don't know until they know.

So, we went in at the second half, we made some adjustments, we got after them a little bit. I think when they came out the second half, they felt a little bit more comfortable because they had seen No. 7 and No. 2. Okay, now I can do my thing because I know what these guys got.

Then they came out and that's what they did. We gave up three points in the second half.

You guys got three interceptions too. That's something that maybe last year was missing, but you've got to be pleased with that.

Cooks: I am pleased with that. I think, like I said, the group that I've got now I really like because I think that their mentality is right. I think, last year, it could have been hit or miss these last two games if we would have finished the right way. These first two games have already proven to me as a coach that this group is a group of guys that are going to strain to try to go and finish the game the right way. And good results have happened.

To start the second overtime there with Maragos looking like he was beat on the post, is that a microcosm of his whole career? It looks like he is beat and then he fights back and makes a play on it.

Cooks: People underestimate really how athletic Maragos is. He's a guy that is pretty athletic back there. Some of the things that he does maybe surprising and shocking to people who don't see him, but I see him everyday.

I've seen him beat or have a guy a step or two behind him and seen him recover. It was great to see it on game day, great to see it being a senior, great to see it being a kid that was a walk-on a year ago who is now on scholarship. Right now, just the first two games as early as it is, he's playing as good as anybody that I've coached in these first two games.

Did you know that was kind of going to propel you guys to victory? That that was the final piece to maybe putting that game away?

Cooks: Yeah, when that play happened, I was very confident in our offense to either kick a field goal or go in and score a touchdown. I didn't want us to give up a touchdown. We wanted to give those guys three points if we had to give them anything. So, when Maragos made that play, you know, you kind of take a sigh of relief. But, you never know until it's over.

In the fourth quarter the defense was on the field a heck of a long time. They had a nine-minute drive to start the quarter and then John Clay runs out and you're guys are right back out there. Was that break from the end of regulation to overtime kind of needed?

Cooks: It was needed. We took a lot of plays. I think we took 82 plays. So our guys were tired. Again, I go back to this group. These guys are workers. Nobody complained, nobody said anything. They were supporting the offense when the offense was up.

This group, I think on Saturday, they found a way. That's something that we didn't do at times last year. So, we found a way. As long as we can continue that momentum and carry it over, the guys will have some success.

Now here today you guys are doing some developmental work. Is Dezmen Southward going to redshirt for sure?

Cooks: Yeah, I think so. I think with the depth that I have at corner, I feel pretty solid. Just watching him out here today, you think about what he can be in the future. So, you know, it would have to be one, two, three, four corners that go down before we bring him up.

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