MADISON - With Dezmen Southward the only defensive back set to return for the 2013 season, the new Wisconsin coaching staff knew they would be short-handed as a whole in the secondary. They addressed the problem by signing safety Donnell Vercher out of the JUCO ranks as part of their 2013 class, but apparently they couldn't wait for him to arrive this summer to reinforce the secondary.
The Badgers converted running back Kyle Zuleger and wide receiver Isaiah Williams to safety on Monday in the hopes that they will compete for playing time along with Reggie Mitchell, Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Zuleger, a walk-on from Appleton, is in his final season of eligibility and only had seven career carries as a running back. Williams, a redshirt junior, has played in eight games for the Badgers so far. Rivals.com also listed Williams as an athlete when he originally signed with the Badgers in 2010.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the staff realized safety depth would be an issue during the previous year's Rose Bowl practices and in talking with outgoing coaches like Chris Ash. But Aranda also seemed confident that Zuleger and Williams will grow into their new roles moving forward.
"We feel good about those two kids," Aranda said Monday. "They're both great learners, they're both very athletic, and they're going to give us an opportunity to play more guys and to get the depth that we need to compete in the Big Ten."
Both Williams and Zuleger previously played on special teams for the Badgers, and will probably do so in the future. Zuleger has 24 total special teams tackles, while Williams registered one in 2011. It remains to be seen how the two will adapt to moving to defense, but that special teams experience should help a little. Aranda said moving to defense is "a completely different world," but their experience on offense could help them once they're comfortable in their new roles.
"When they turn the corner with it, the plusses there are even bigger because they have a feel for what the offense is doing," Aranda said. "There's an understanding there that a lot of defense-only guys don't have. But they've got to get to a point where they feel comfortable with the initial alignments and assignments and techniques that they've got to execute."
Zuleger spent his first day as a safety working with the second-team defense, so the Badgers are definitely willing to throw the pair of them into the fire during spring camp. The Badgers have their first spring scrimmage coming up on Wednesday, giving the two newest safeties a chance to show what they can do on defense. But for now Aranda said Zuleger and Williams are excited for the move and were quick to get to work once they got the news.
"They had a great day today. They were in there watching tape all this afternoon, so they're committed to it," Aranda said. "I know they're excited about it. They see the opportunity. They know the depth so they knew the issues. They're ready to go, and I'm excited to help them get to where they need to be."