Big Ten: Brian Dawkins

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- To understand Jay Valai's passion for bone-crushing hits, you must learn his list of YouTube favorites.

Before every Wisconsin game, Valai, a junior safety for the Badgers, watches "Weapon X," better known as Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins. His video selections also include big hits from the late Redskins safety Sean Taylor and "some Oklahoma State game from the 1990s" where a player loses his helmet in a collision.

Valai's playlist even includes a clip that makes Wisconsin fans cringe -- Tennessee's Eric Berry crushing Badgers quarterback Tyler Donovan in the Outback Bowl two years ago.

 
  Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
  Making the big hit has helped Wisconsin's Jay Valai make a name for himself.

"Even Eric Berry knocking out TD," Valai said, "it kind of excites me, I don't know why."

Valai is developing his own library of YouTube-worthy hits.

He knocked the 'M' decal off the helmet of Minnesota running back Shady Salamon last November and delivered huge blows against Ohio State, Indiana and others. He led the team in forced fumbles (3) in 2008 and knocked out four players from games.

Valai also led Badgers defensive backs with 56 tackles (35 solo).

"He thinks he's Brian Dawkins," cornerback Aaron Henry said. "With Jay being so small and compact, he can hit somebody and it'll seem like a bullet hit 'em."

As Valai steps into a bigger role this fall for the Badgers, his goal is simple.

"Controlled violence," he said. "That's the key."

While Valai is known as one of the Big Ten's biggest hitters, he also must rein things in after delivering several questionable blows. New Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo wants to crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits, and Valai likely will be on officials' radar.

"When he's in on something, he really wants to go whack it," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "Sometimes, it's better to be a little bit more on the side of caution to make sure you've got everything down."

Valai has several explanations for why he craves the big hits, and he's happy to share them.

  • "Little-man syndrome." Valai stands only 5-foot-9.
  • "Me and [DeAndre] Levy last year, we just found something to be disrespected about."
  • "Texas football. It's just run, see, hit." Valai hails from Euless, Texas.

Though Valai agrees he was born to be a safety, his all-time favorite hit takes him all the way back to the eighth grade, when he also played offense.

His team was facing fourth-and-goal from the 11-yard line.

"My quarterback was running into the end zone," he recalled, "and some guy was directly behind him. So I ran straight at him for about 10 yards, took a sidestep to the left and crack-back blocked him. He flipped kind of sideways. We didn't even [score a touchdown], but the crowd was on their feet.

"Ever since then, man, it's been like a drug to me."

Valai wants to keep building his reputation in the Big Ten, but he knows he needs to become a more complete defender.

He was a strong coverage safety in high school, operating mostly in a man-to-man defense. It's taken a few years to master the more complex zone coverages college teams use, but Valai has caught up.

"He always is going for the big hit," Bielema said. "There's a time and place for those things, and those have to be a part of who he is, but I need him to make every play. I want him to make a play in a tough situation, in the open field, be able to get a guy down and have accountability to your teammates."

The über-confident Valai expects to elevate his overall game, but he still salivates when opposing receivers dare to cross over the middle.

"That's just like dessert after dinner, man," he said. "You're licking your chops every play."

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