- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Smith, a starting cornerback for the Badgers, missed all but two games last season with a foot injury that required surgery.
In case you missed it, here's what Bielema, the Badgers' coach, told ESPN Radio Madison last month:
"Devin was playing as good of football as we'd ever seen. For us here at Wisconsin, for us to have one of those special, special, maybe national championship-type seasons, you have to stay healthy. I honestly think if Devin Smith had played the entire year at the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would have lost."
Bielema's bold words gained a good deal of attention, except from the man being discussed. Last week, Smith told ESPN.com that he didn't know what his coach had said about him.
"I have a lot of respect for Coach B, and I really appreciate that," Smith said. "It's hard to say what could have happened if I wasn't injured, but I definitely appreciate that compliment. You never know."
Here's what is known: Smith will be back this season. The senior is fully cleared and will participate in all of preseason camp. Smith injured his left foot in a Week 2 win against Oregon State and underwent surgery two days later.
Smith had limited participation in spring practice, but he's getting back to full strength in summer workouts.
"It's a great feeling, being able to get back out and execute at 100 percent," Smith said. "I can't wait for the season to get here."
Smith started every game in 2009 and led the squad in passes defended (11). He moved to the nickel back role the next year, making just one start, but reclaimed a spot in the lineup opposite All-Big Ten corner Antonio Fenelus in 2011.
"I felt like I had a lot of momentum going into the year," he said. "I felt I was at the top of my game, and I was only going to get better as the season progressed."
The foot injury changed his plans. The season wasn't a total waste, though, as Smith gained knowledge from an "outside perspective" of watching from the sideline.
He expects to be a smarter player and a more active leader in the secondary this season. The secondary loses its top leader, safety Aaron Henry, as well as Fenelus. Smith, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and safety Shelton Johnson, who arrived at Wisconsin together in 2008, are ready to step up.
"We've been around a lot, from 7-6 to a 10-3 to two Rose Bowl teams," Smith said. "We definitely know what it takes to become successful and how to win. I definitely see myself as a leader, not just for the secondary but for the team as well. I can definitely fill that senior leadership that we need to get where we want to go at the end of the season."
Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in pass defense (163.6 ypg allowed), 35th in pass efficiency defense (120.4 rating) and tied for 18th in passes intercepted (16), but the secondary was cast in a negative light after allowing long touchdown passes at the end of losses to both Michigan State and Ohio State.
Bielema offered a potential explanation, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "Those plays that hit, they were going after [Smith's] backup, Marcus Cromartie." Smith didn't throw Cromartie under the bus, saying his replacement "did an unbelievable job," but he acknowledged the secondary has room for improvement.
"Everybody remembers those two plays," Smith said. "We're not going to stress on it, but we're trying to learn from it and be able to move forward. [Defensive coordinator Chris] Ash definitely stresses that if you play 80 plays in a game and 79 good plays, that one play can be the difference. "
Wisconsin hopes Smith can be the difference as it aims for another Big Ten title, a third consecutive trip to Pasadena and, this, time, a Rose Bowl victory.
"We have to have that mentality," Smith said, "to finish every single game."