UW sophomore Sojourn Shelton and the rest of the Badgers know they can force people to respect the program with a win on Saturday.
Looking for respect
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - “We don’t pay attention to what the media says.”
It’s a bit of a cliché. You hear players say it all the time before rattling off an answer that makes it pretty clear they do know what the public is saying about them or their team. It’s that way for Sojourn Shelton.
The University of Wisconsin sophomore was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in 2013, and his four interceptions are the second most of any returning player in the conference. But the South Florida native isn’t talked about like a couple other cornerbacks in his class – Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves and Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller. The former was a third-team All-American by the Associated Press, and the latter was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I see those guy’s names mentioned a lot as being the best corners in college football,” Shelton said of the pair that he considers close friends. “I think last year my season was pretty good, but seeing that, and seeing that my name is not in there, and that people don’t give us the respect as a team. They don’t give myself the respect, yet. It’s just something that I could work hard for.”
It’s a theme across the entire team that, despite being picked to win the West Division of the Big Ten, feels dissed by those outside of the program. Six conference titles in the last 20 years and a winning record in 18 of those seasons have left UW among the nations most consistent outfits in college football. And yet they aren’t viewed among the country’s elite, which is likely a result of a conference that isn’t considered as strong as it once was, and the fact the Badgers haven’t won a bowl game since 2009.
“We don’t get as much respect as we should,” Shelton said. “That’s something we understand, and have to prove to people so that they do respect us. I think this is a big year for us to do that. There’s a lot of things that a lot of us want to accomplish. The overall goal is to win all our games and to win all 12 rounds. We’ll see where it takes us. That time is coming when we can start trying to prove people wrong.”
That’s especially true on the back end. Viewed as the weak part of last year’s statistically good defense, they return three starters and view this year as an opportunity to show all they needed was some time and experience.
“We’ve always been doubted in the back end at Wisconsin,” junior Darius Hillary said. “I think this year we’re going to turnover a new leaf and show people, and the rest of the country, that we know how to play.”
On an individual basis it’s a big year for Shelton. Though in just his second year, he’s started more games than everyone but fellow secondary mates Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo. And despite his youth, fellow players look up to the 5-foot-9, 178-pound, Shelton.
“He’s moving into a position to be a leader on the team,” UW coach Gary Andersen said last week. “Any youthful young man that has had as much success as Sojourn has had needs to lead himself first. Make sure he’s doing that (and) he is.
“I think a lot of the young kids, especially from the southeast, look up to Sojourn and follow the ways that he directs them, which is good.
“Sojourn is a very grounded young man and does a nice job. He’ll take that step even more so next year, and the year after that, but it’s started to move in the right direction.”
Shelton’s got big goals, including at least eight interceptions. He wants the team to reach its potential, starting with a big opportunity against No. 13 LSU on Saturday in Houston, Texas. A win there – and the others that are sure to follow – would force the country to raise their level of respect for UW and for Shelton.
“I play with that edge all the time, but I think it’s real serious now,” Shelton said of the chip on his shoulder. “Just for the simple fact that my name doesn’t get brought up in a lot of that stuff. It’s not anything to take away from the team, but it is a personal goal of mine. I feel like I should be brought up in those conversations, but it just gives me another opportunity to prove (I do).”
To get the Badgers where Shelton and the rest of the team want means replacing playmakers all over the defense. With Chris Borland playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Dezmen Southward in Atlanta with the Falcons and so many other guys that UW could expect big plays out of now gone it falls to those still on campus. It’s a void that Shelton desperately wants to fill.
“I just want to be that player on defense, when we need a big play, the coaches can count on me to make that play,” Shelton said. “I look at certain games that we lost. Once I started becoming that player, I just didn’t come through. I look at the South Carolina game. Games like that. I learn from it and now it’s time for me to take on that role. Be an impact player. Be a player that everybody can look to and say, ‘Hey Jay, we need a play. Make it happen.’
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin