Sojourn Shelton has made plenty of plays as a freshman but he's got bigger plans for the future.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Sojourn Shelton is proud of what he’s accomplished this year. The University of Wisconsin cornerback appreciates the recognition that’s come his way since the regular season ended. Earning honorable mention All-Big Ten from the media is great. Seeing his name on freshmen All-American teams shows him the hard work is paying dividends. With all that said, Shelton isn’t totally satisfied with his first season in Madison.
“I didn’t meet a lot of my personal goals that I wanted to meet as far as me getting better,” Shelton said as the Badgers started preparing for their Capital One Bowl matchup with South Carolina. “Not to be too hard on myself. I am satisfied, as a freshman, it is kind of nice but I just want to continue to improve. I want to have the same goals going into next season, and I want to accomplish those goals. They’re pretty big goals.”
And his position coach Ben Strickland wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you don’t have big goals, or you don’t have high expectations for yourself, you’re not going to get very far,” Strickland said. “Whether that’s as coaches or players. I’ve seen different guys and the ones that (reach their goals) are the ones that have those high aspirations and work towards those. Regardless of what other people say or whether they believe in you, as long as the belief is there in yourself, and you continue to work at that, and every day you come with that purpose, then you’ll get a lot better and you’ll get closer to those goals.”
Shelton’s goals are large. The most noticeable one for fans is the number of interceptions Shelton wanted. He came into the season with a goal of eight but had to settle for four, which led the team.
“The opportunities were there (for more),” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of growing. A lot of those plays, where I went for the pass breakup, they could have been picks. I think that’s just part of growing.”
The growing process for Shelton is, quite literally, a growing process. He came to campus last January as an early enrollee and one of the bigger names of Gary Andersen’s first recruiting class. But that big name couldn’t hide what was obvious the first time coaches saw him. He needed to add weight to his 5-foot-9 frame – a lot of weight. When he stepped on a scale prior to winter conditioning he was 152 pounds, which wasn’t going to cut it in the Big Ten. So if he wanted to make an impact as a true freshman he knew packing on the weight was the only way to make it happen.
“On a confidence level, I knew I could play at the college level. It was just a matter of if I could put the weight on. And I knew I could put the weight on once I got to a legit weight program. Place where I could eat a lot and do all the little things nutritional-wise,” said Shelton, who made it to 172 pounds by the start of the season. “I knew I could but I needed to come in early. That’s why it was so vitally important for me to get here.”
Arriving early also allowed him an opportunity to bond with his new teammates and take part in spring practice. There is no doubt that Shelton’s success after coming early to school has served as a road map for those that will follow him in the class of 2014. Five guys that have committed to the Badgers – offensive linemen Jaden Gault, Michael Dieter, quarterback D.J. Gillins, safety Austin Hudson and defensive lineman Jeremy Patterson – will reportedly enroll in January.
“Build a chemistry with those guys,” Shelton said of what was so great about coming in early. “The team’s always been close. For them to accept me in the family and show me the way, (meant a lot). Everybody on defense from (Chris) Borland and Dezmen (Southward) and all the guys in the secondary they took me in like I was their little brother. I think that was the best part. To see that I could play with these guys and we’re just a big family.”
From the first game of the season against Massachusetts Shelton has been the most consistent of the Badgers cornerbacks. He had his learning moments – a rough game against Arizona State and a big dropped interception against Ohio State – but overall the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native played at a level higher than most thought he would. He's seventh on the team in tackles (31) and is the leader in passes defended (11) and pass breakups (7).
“I think anytime you get a true freshman that’s starting it’s impressive because the level of play changes from high school to college and from college to the next level,” Strickland said. “But he was thrown in the fire and he handled it with tremendous poise. And the reason he did start was because he wasn’t going to settle. That was a goal of his and he worked towards that goal. And now he’s got a goal to get better, and he’s going to continue to work towards that goal.”
One thing that Shelton doesn’t lack is confidence. He’s firmly believed since putting on a helmet that he would become a big-time player. And it’s not a quiet confidence, either. When Shelton makes a play – and sometimes even when he did nothing but watch the ball sail out of bounds – he’s got some type of celebratory reaction. But it’s never with malice. It’s just a kid that plays with the passion and effort necessary to get where he and his coaches think he can get to.
“My whole thing is if my expectations are higher than yours there is a problem. And I’m going to have pretty high expectations,” Strickland said. “I think (Shelton’s) going to set higher goals than probably I will because that’s what great players do. And if he is going to be a great player he’s going to continue to work towards those things.”
Shelton sees plenty of areas to improve and that will be his focus during bowl practices and in the offseason.
“Tackling,” Shelton answered when asked where he was hoping to get better. “I made a lot of tackles this season but not enough. I want to improve those numbers and just be more of a physical presence for the defense. Not only be somebody that can cover. As I continue to put on weight that confidence will continue to come. I think that’s my biggest improvement. Put on weight and just be more of a physical presence for the defense.”
It’s a defense that will lose a majority of it’s starting front-seven after the bowl game. And unlike this year, when the secondary was the young and inexperienced unit, they’ll be the ones counted on for leadership in 2014.
“It’s important for one of us to step up. Whether it’s me or (Darius Hilary) or Peniel Jean. Somebody in the secondary,” said Shelton, who will likely be one of three returning starters on the back end of the defense. “Everybody is saying our team is going to be young but I feel like at the positions that we are losing people there are people that are legit and can step right into those positions.
“I think we may take a step back but during the winter and the spring. But going into the summer and definitely by next fall those spots where we might have taken a step back, we’ll take two steps forward. It’s just a matter of time and getting the whole thing together.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin