NCF Nation: Peniel Jean

Wisconsin celebratesJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesDuring the 2009 season, cornerback Devin Smith (No. 10) started every game for the Badgers.
Bret Bielema's comments about star Devin Smith and the value he would have brought Wisconsin in 2011 quickly made their way around America's dairyland and Big Ten country.

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 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.

Smith has helped mentor younger defensive backs like Peniel Jean, Darius Hillary and Terrance Floyd.

"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."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema expects to have a more definitive update on starting cornerback Devin Smith by the end of the day.

But it doesn't look good.

Smith suffered a left foot injury in Saturday's win against Oregon State. He sustained the injury in the first quarter and left the field on crutches with his foot wrapped.

Bielema said Smith definitely will miss this week's game against Northern Illinois. But he also mentioned the possibility of Smith returning for a fifth year if he misses the season.

Bottom line: don't expect to see Smith for a while.

Wisconsin's cornerback depth isn't great, and the Badgers need good play and sustained health from junior Marcus Cromartie, who will take Smith's spot on the field. Cromartie has displayed good skills but has had some trouble staying healthy early in his career.

After Cromartie, Wisconsin lists freshmen Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary. So losing Smith for an extended period could sting.

Keep an eye on Cromartie this week against Northern Illinois, which boasts an excellent quarterback in Chandler Harnish and has scored 91 points in its first two games. Wisconsin's defense will be tested at Soldier Field.

Wisconsin recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
Wisconsin Badgers

The class

Recruits: 24 (all high school seniors, one enrolled early). Wisconsin also signed six preferred walk-ons.

Top prospects: Safety Frank Tamakloe was on the fringes of the ESPNU 150 rankings. Defensive tackle Beau Allen could be a force on the defensive line very early in his career.

Sleepers: Offensive lineman Joe McNamara, a late arrival to the class, could end up being a steal. Another late arrival, wide receiver Isaiah Williams from Miami, provides a big target for the quarterback.

Needs met: Wisconsin needed defensive tackles and got three of them, including Allen. The Badgers also addressed the secondary with four defensive backs, including Tamakloe and Peniel Jean.

Analysis: For the second consecutive year, Wisconsin has to feel very good about its recruiting class. Rankings don't matter to Bret Bielema and his assistants, who got a lot out of unheralded young players in 2009 and likely will do so again in 2010. The Badgers added depth in the defensive backfield and the offensive line, filled a need on the interior defensive line and picked up another quarterback in Joseph Brennan. This was an unusually good year for in-state recruiting, and Wisconsin capitalized at home before polishing off the class with Florida prospects.

What Bret Bielema said:

  • "We expected to take four DBs, which we did. We expected to take three linebackers, so we oversigned by one there. And then the defensive line, it was just an exceptional year for us to get kids on campus and get an opportunity to recruit them. I'm really pleased with the progress there. And then on the offensive side, we had smaller numbers, but we went after specific targets and were able to get them."
  • "Obviously, Dallas Lewallen, the young man from Wisconsin, fits our mode, and then Robbie Havenstein comes our way from Maryland, but in reality, his mom and dad were born and raised in Michigan, Midwest people through and through. They really fit into what we try to do offensive-line wise. And then with the tight ends, same deal. Manasseh [Garner] is more of a Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks type, and Sherard [Cadogan] is more of a Garrett Graham type, he can do a lot of different things."
  • "Frank [Tamakloe] was a kid who came in during the summer and went on a whirlwind tour, looked at a lot of places that had great academics and a good football reputation. We're excited to get him in here, especially the inroads we're making in that part of the country [Washington D.C.]."