Versatility is key
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Dezmen Southward has always been willing to make sacrifices if it was for the best of the team, even if it wasn’t always the most ideal move for him personally. When a late invite from the Senior Bowl arrived in mid-January the Florida-native jumped at it. When he got to Mobile, Ala., last week he was informed that due to several players dropping out they were going to need him to play cornerback. Southward, who played safety in every game but one at Wisconsin, took the same approach he always did during his time in Madison.
“I’ll go in and play any position that I’m asked to play and do it to the best of my ability,” Southward said of his mindset. “It was a little tougher, obviously, going against the best receivers the nation has to offer, but I felt like I went out there and showed well for myself.”
He did. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. labeled Southward the most versatile defensive back on the North team, as he played corner along with some strong safety and free safety.
“It went really well,” Southward said of the transition. “In my opinion, the lingo was the first thing to get down. Just the way the NFL talks, compared to college…Just trying to catch up comfort wise, the more reps you get out there at every position the more comfortable you feel. So the more I got, the better I felt as the week went on. I felt like I did really well.”
The North team was coached by the staff from the Atlanta Falcons, and it was Southward’s first opportunity to get tutelage from the guys doing it on the games biggest stage.
“I think there is a little bit,” Southward said when asked if there was a difference between college coaches and an NFL staff. “They’ll tell you things once. If you’re lucky, twice.
“The thing at the next level is to be able to take that coaching from the first time and get it right after that. I think that’s what you see at this level is guys that are so dedicated to their craft that they only need to be told that they’ve done something wrong one time. I think at the college level sometimes you need a lot more. Some players are a little more immature and take a little bit more coaching.”
Southward had an up-and-down senior season. He was the lone starter back in the secondary and had a lot of responsibility in the 3-4 scheme put in place by new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. He finished with 40 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one interception and a forced fumble.
One of the few ways that team’s were able to beat the veteran Badgers defense was throwing the ball down the field. Their success doing so was especially prevalent in losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and Penn State. With Southward the only one departing, he believes the group has a bright future.
“I think as a program you have to,” Southward said of the defensive backfield improvements. “No one sits back and says, ‘hey, we’re going to do well this year.’ We have to continue to build. I see that group being kind of like our senior class was. When I was coming up we lost huge classes with really, really talented players. But that left opportunities for a lot of us to step up and do some great things. And I think this year is really going to pan out to show we have a lot of players who haven’t had an opportunity to play because we had so many veteran players.
“I think it’ll be exciting to see what guys come to the forefront. What guys continue to develop and go out and produce at a high level because it’s going to happen with a team losing that many guys someone definitely has to step up. And I think we have the right guys to do it.”
And not just in the secondary. Losing your top four defensive lineman and four of your top five linebackers leaves a big void to fill but Southward likes the leadership possibilities.
“I think one guy that is just steadily continuing to improve, kind of just kept his nose down and works, is Warren Herring along the defensive line,” Southward said of the junior who finished with 4.5 sacks. “A lot of people should look out for what he’s able to bring to the table on the field. He’s a great person off the field. I’m looking for big things from him next season.”
Like most of those in the country, Southward will sit down to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. Unlike most of those in the country, he’ll have direct connections to guys on both of the teams.
Seahawks’ safety Chris Maragos and outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield were seniors during Southward’s true freshman season of 2009. He played with Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in 2011 and was a part of the same recruiting class (2009) as Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball.
“I’ve had a relationship with each one of those guys,” Southward said. “I’ve talked to them and seen the struggles they went through to get to where they are now. I think that’s the coolest thing for me. I won’t lean one side or the other. I feel like the Wisconsin Badgers are winning one way or the other. Someone’s coming home with a ring so I’ll be cheering for our guys on both sides. It’ll be great to watch.”
Southward will be watching from Indianapolis where he’s training at the St. Vincent Sports Performance center for the NFL Combine in late February. He’s been there since the Badgers lost to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. The next few months will be the longest and most important job interview Southward will ever go through.
“It is and I think you have to approach it that way,” Southward said of the job interview mentality. “First things first is start training position-wise drills for the Senior Bowl. And then you get back to it. You really get specific as far as the combine. Get really specific for the interviews. As the process goes on and on and on you really focus on the next thing. You try your very best at that. Present yourself in the best light possible. That’s kind of what I’m in the midst of right now.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin