Shelton Brings a Slice of Savvy

Sojourn Shelton (USA Today Images)

Just five games into his first college season, cornerback Sojourn Shelton is showing that he is confident enough to bounce back from any adversity thrown his way.

MADISON - On paper, Sojourn Shelton should still be a young cornerback learning the ropes, building confidence and trying to make a name for himself. So it could be understood that one unfortunate play could have soured the cornerback's entire experience against Ohio State.

Fortunately for Wisconsin, Shelton doesn't act like a true freshman who has been on a college campus a little more than 10 months.

"He's starting to get into that upperclassmen facet," said defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. "We're at the stage right now where we need that. I can see that happening here pretty soon because he's starting to have a savvy to him."

There were a couple of times Shelton could have folded under the pressure in Columbus. He was the first of three defensive backs beaten for easy touchdowns in the first half, hesitating on a fake dive play and a wheel route to allow receiver Evan Spencer to get past him on a post, resulting in a 25-yard touchdown on the game's first drive.

"As a corner you have to have short-term memory," said Shelton. "If you get scored on early, you have to scratch that out, continue playing and keep going hard."

The one that sticks out was the gift interception that bounced right off his body and on to the turf. Instead of ending the half with his third interception of the season, Shelton watched Corey Brown haul in a 40-yard touchdown with one second left from the other end of the field.

Instead of being down 17-14, Wisconsin went down 10 and never got closer than seven in its 31-24 loss two weekends ago.

"I felt like I had to make that play and that's a play that I am used to making," said Shelton. "I just want to be that player that's clutch, who can come through in those situations like that to help this team out. I put that pressure on myself because that's the kind of player that I want to be. One day I want to be the best corner in the Big Ten."

Shelton's logic on that play suggests he already is thinking well ahead of the curve. Despite the third largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history pushing the decibel levels, Shelton had the entire scenario mapped out in his head of what his coverage assignment was and what his end goal was.

"My mindset was just get the ball out," Shelton said. "It was third-and-7 and there wasn't that much time left. My thing was just to not let him catch the ball. My whole focus was to get the ball out and to put ourselves in a good situation to make another play. Obviously it's didn't go right and we're accountable as a group."

Losing three senior starters off last year's unit, Wisconsin's secondary was expected to have growing pains through the first portion of the schedule, but Shelton has smoothed some of the bumps through five games.

Entering this weekend's matchup against No.19 Northwestern, likely the last ranked opponent Wisconsin will face in the regular season, Shelton leads the team with two interceptions, is second with three pass breakups and fifth on the team with 16 tackles.

Against the Buckeyes, Shelton recorded five tackles, one forced fumble and two pass breakups, one of which was an athletic deflection in one-on-one coverage against Spencer in the end zone, the receiver who beat him for a score in the first quarter.

"I was real proud of him in this last game," said Aranda. "There was times when he was in man-to-man, had to make a play and made a play. He played with clean hands. Whatever the assignment, whether it was man coverage, playing Cover 2 where he has to play physical and not get depth with his drop or Cover 3 where he has to split the two deepest receivers, he's done all those things while being physical and putting his nose in there. He's improved greatly in all those areas."

Improvement has been Shelton's primary focus since enrolling for spring semester. He had the moxie and talent to be a top-end corner, especially since he was named first-team all-county in a talent-rich part of Florida, but was viewed as a potential liability with his weight hovering just below 150 pounds.

With the goal of gaining a pound a week, Shelton, just like the playbook and the defense, tackled it head on. When fall camp started, roughly 30 weeks after being on campus, Shelton tipped the scales at 175.

And although he won't turn 19 until Christmas Day, Aranda noticed in fall camp how Shelton was correctly approaching a third-and-12 situation differently than a third-and-4 with respect to his splits, awareness and details.

"It's exciting for me for what the future holds for him and how good he can be," said Aranda. "He's a very self aware guy. He's focused on improvement, the technicalities and the fundamentals."

The Wildcats will certainly test Shelton and UW's secondary. Not only has Northwestern scored at least 30 points in seven straight games, toed for the second-longest active streak in the nation, Northwestern's two quarterbacks are completing 72.3 percent of its passes, good enough for fourth nationally.

It's a lot of pressure for any cornerback, must less one about to start his sixth career game while being barely able to vote. In Shelton's mind, it's another opportunity to prove his mettle.

"I put that pressure on myself," said Shelton. "I know I've put the time in. It's not a surprise that I am starting because it's something that I envisioned. I expected out of myself. It's something that I am proud of and I want to continue working hard and progressing in the right direction."

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