MADISON – Aaron Henry
had every reason to be nervous at the first snap of the football.
Three years removed from an outstanding true freshman season, where he registered 38 tackles in 12 games, Henry still felt he was on a roller coaster ever since he tore his ACL at the end of the 2007 season.
Since then, Henry missed a whole season rehabilitating, had a bout with the H1N1 virus at the beginning of last season that cost him his confidence and, in the end, his starting job. So when the coaching staff gave him a second chance, moving from cornerback to free safety, Henry wasn't going to let another opportunity slip.
"I knew I had to go out there, be mentally focused and just take care of business," Henry said. "Was I nervous going into it? Yes, because free safety is something I had never played prior to his season. I knew I just had to go out there and be the general."
Henry certainly was the leader on Saturday, turning in the play of the day when he returned a J.J. Watt forced fumble 20 yards for his second career touchdown. That play turned the tide, as Wisconsin scored 24 unanswered points to make a 17-14 nail biter in a 41-21 rout.
"Aaron is just a baller," senior cornerback Niles Brinkley said. "He's a ball hawk. Since day one, he's been around the ball. His first game against Iowa he had a couple sacks, he's scored touchdowns and recovered fumbles. Having Aaron out there and having that corner background, it's just another ball player that we have who is solid in pass coverage."
Heading into Saturday's home opener against San Jose State, Henry has already gotten comfortable making the calls instead of receiving them. Playing approximately 56 plays against UNLV, Henry said he was graded out by Secondary Coach Chris Ash as having just four negative plays, most of which were pre-snap alignment problems.
The other problem was a 15-yard facemask penalty on UNLV's second drive, a play Henry feels was wrongly called by the backside official but a play he could have avoided. Other than that, the secondary committed zero penalties, something the group attributes to the way Ash has hammered home fundamentals and technique throughout the three weeks of fall camp.
"Last year, tackling, having the ball cut back on us and getting penalties was definitely a problem," Henry said. "Coach Ash came in and worked with us every day on tackling. If we can't tackle, it doesn't matter what type of scheme we run, we aren't going to win games."
The Badgers also aren't going to win if the younger players aren't prepared. After Henry and senior strong safety Jay Valai, the second string contains three players who have yet to play a down in Wisconsin's base defense. Just like Henry was mentored in the offseason by former UW safeties Jim Leonhard and Chris Maragos, Henry has made sure reserve safeties Shelton Johnson, Conor O'Neill and Dezmen Southward are ready for when their number is called.
"What you get from him is be ready," Southward said of Henry. "Most guys get their first chance of being injured, so he tells me to be ready and know my responsibilities. One play and bam, I am on the field. I watch every rep he takes and I am sure he watches every rep I take so he can give me the feedback that I need."
Wisconsin's defense finished 17th in the country after giving up 305.7 yards of offense per game, but 71 percent of those yards came via passing plays. After allowing six teams to complete a pass play over 40 yards, UW held UNLV to only 105 passing yards on 10 completions.
Consider that the needed confidence for Henry and the rest of the UW defense to get off the roller coaster and stay steady for the remainder of the season.
"As a defense, (Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren) always talks about turnovers and how they can win or lose the game," Henry said. "If we can put up some touchdowns and get some turnovers, we can put our offense in a position to win.
"At the end of the day, all we care about is that ball. If we can get that ball and get in the end zone, it's even better."
Once struggling to find his once solid rhythm at cornerback, junior Aaron Henry has found a new fit at the free safety position. Heading into Saturday's game at San Jose State, Henry sees positive steps coming for him and the rest of UW's defense