- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wisconsin's Aaron Henry is by no means a wallflower. The affable Floridian was one of the media stars of Rose Bowl week last season and an enthusiastic interview subject.
It just so happened that Henry played safety last year next to Jay Valai. Rush Limbaugh might seem quiet in the same room as Valai. But now that Valai has used up his eligibility, it's time for Henry's voice to be heard more.
"I could tell a little difference in the spring without Jay, because he's one of those guys that will talk you ear off," Henry said last week. "He talks so much that I didn't have to be as vocal. I'll have to be a little more vocal this year. I'm definitely ready to step up to the plate and challenge my teammates."
The Badgers lost several good, respected leaders last year, including Valai, defensive end J.J. Watt, offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt and quarterback Scott Tolzien. They need new leaders to emerge, and Henry is ready to assume that role in the secondary.
He has already earned respect on the field. After switching from cornerback to free safety in 2010, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.
This is the time of year when leaders really start to make their presence felt, as the players are mostly on their own during summer voluntary workouts. Henry said that's where last year's Rose Bowl team experienced some of its best growth.
"This time is crucial," he said. "People tend to forget that this is where we do a lot of team bonding, and where team chemistry comes in. Everybody put in the work last year -- that was guaranteed. As far as chemistry goes, guys were really clicking on and off the field. When you're close with a guy, you'll really be willing to stick up for him when the going gets tough."
This summer, Henry said he's helping organize film sessions for the younger defensive backs. It's not all work, though. Players have spent time together at Bible study, going bowling and hanging out on the lake. Receiver Nick Toon has use of a speedboat owned by his father, former NFL star Al Toon, and has invited teammates out on the water. Henry said he also went fishing with long snapper Kyle Wojta one day.
"Guys are doing a good job of getting out of their comfort zone and hanging out with people they usually don't hang out with," he said.
Wisconsin lost veteran cornerback Niles Brinkley along with Valai from last year's secondary. Devin Smith showed some playmaking ability at corner this spring, and All-Big Ten performer Antonio Fenelus is back for his senior season. Several other defensive backs have at least some game experience.
There might be more pressure on that secondary, since Watt won't be around to harass quarterbacks into hurried throws this year.
"I had the year I had because J.J. made my job so much easier," Henry said. "We have guys who can pick up that slack, but those are huge shoes to fill."
Chris Ash, who coached the secondary last year, is now the defensive coordinator. He'll also work with the cornerbacks, while new assistant DeMontie Cross coaches the safeties. Henry says Cross has brought an aggressive attitude to the Badgers.
"We're tough-nosed guys who will put our pads on you," Henry said. "A lot of people will know about the Wisconsin safeties. They'll know we're tough son-of-guns who will hit you in the mouth on every play."
And they'll know that Aaron Henry will be doing most of the group's talking.
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