For more Badger sports news, notes and discussion, especially on game day, follow Badger Nation on Twitter @TheBadgerNation
MADISON - Addressing the departure of two expected contributors in the secondary for the first time, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was honest in saying he was worried about the position, particularly the safety spot, from the moment he started evaluating the roster.
It's one of the main reasons Wisconsin accepted Fresno (CA) City College defensive back Donnell Vercher's letter of intent in February despite his academic transcript still having issues that needed to be corrected before he could enroll. "Donnell had a chance to be able to be with us," Andersen told Badger Nation on the Mike Heller Show. "The academic power of Wisconsin is very important to me. It's very important to our staff … We learned as a staff. Donnell had the opportunity to get it done. It didn't quite happen that way."
Described as ‘a ballhawk' at every level, Vercher was expected to be a key part in UW's defense and compete for playing time immediately. The 6-2 and 195-pound Vercher had only 23 tackles last season, but finished with a team-high eight interceptions.
When it was evident that Vercher wasn't going to pass admissions, Andersen released him from his letter of intent, allowing him to sign with Fresno State.
"We were cutting it really close and in fairness to him and his family to make sure he had a scholarship, the best thing to do for us as a coaching staff was to give him an opportunity to go play somewhere else," said Andersen. "Sometimes giving a young man an opportunity, even though it's not with us, in life is important. He had an opportunity, stubbed his toe a little bit but he'll be fine. He's going to get a scholarship and he'll be able to go play.
"For me, I'm never going to sit there and put a kid in a position to not have a scholarship. If I can't do my best to guarantee him that we're going to take care of him, I've got to let him go and move on in life. I just think that's fair to him and his family."
The news of Vercher came a week after redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell decided to transfer after being unhappy at Wisconsin. Mitchell, who played high school football at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, will join the Panthers and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who recruited Mitchell when he was at Wisconsin before becoming a part of Paul Chryst's first staff after the 2012 Rose Bowl.
As a senior, Mitchell was named first-team all-state defensive back. He was also a team MVP as a senior after throwing for 800 yards and running for 1,420 yards and 22 touchdowns.
"Reggie is in a position to do what he has to do," said Andersen. "Reggie left him on good terms. Reggie is a great kid. A young man has to be happy to be in position to be able to succeed, and that situation is what it is … He's in a position where he things he can better himself. I am in favor of that."
Redshirt junior Michael Trotter (24 tackles, one sack last season) and redshirt sophomore Michael Caputo (10 tackles) will be the two experienced players in the mix to play at safety for Wisconsin. It's also possible that sophomore junior college transfer Tekeim Reynard could be asked to contribute. Playing both cornerback and safety last season, Reynard recorded 88 tackles to rank in the top 20 of all junior college players in that category.
"It's going to be interesting to see how T.J. develops," Andersen said. "The strategy is to build as much competition as you possibly can and T.J. has been here for a week and half now. He seems to be adapting to it well and handling it well."
Saying he's moved players around to different positions throughout his coaching career to better the team, Andersen has already moved three players (running back Jeff Lewis, wide receiver Isaiah Williams, running back Kyle Zuleger) to safety to build depth since the start of spring.
It may look bleak at the moment, but Andersen isn't hitting the panic button with the opener 71 days away.
"I think we're going to be in a good spot," said Andersen. "There are a lot of kids in that spot who I think can compete. I think we'll be just fine. There are a number of positions you look at right now and you say, ‘Where are we? Where are we sitting? What's our depth?' You try to put the pieces to the puzzle together as good as you can.
"Everybody in the country has those same issues. Nobody is sitting there saying, ‘We feel great about our two-deep (depth chart) all over the place."