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College football: Here's who Wisconsin expects to step up with Hunter Wohler out

UW knows what it has in its other starting safety, senior John Torchio. He's a proven playmaker and showed it last week with a program-record interception return of 100 yards for a score. But who they put next to him in the starting lineup and throughout the game will be intriguing.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Wisconsin
Wisconsin Badgers safety John Torchio (15) returns an interception for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Illinois State Redbirds at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports
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MADISON — Arguably the biggest concern regarding the Badgers football team's defense will be tested just two weeks into the season.

University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sounded the alarm in spring that the team wasn't as deep at safety as he'd like, and tried to address those concerns by bringing in a transfer while also getting some luck that injuries healed for other potential contributors.

Starting safety Hunter Wohler injured his left leg last week, so those reserves will be pressed into action at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, when the No. 19 Badgers (1-0) host Washington State. The Cougars (1-0) throw on nearly 70% of their snaps, so safety play is even more important than normal for UW this week.

UW knows what it has in its other starting safety, senior John Torchio. He's a proven playmaker and showed it last week with a program-record interception return of 100 yards for a score. But who they put next to him in the starting lineup and throughout the game will be intriguing.

"It's going to be a little bit by committee," Leonhard said of the free safety spot. "There's great competition, these guys have been getting after it all camp. I think it's close enough that they're both (Kamo'i Latu and Preston Zachman) going to play, they're both going to have their roles and split that job a little bit, take a little bit of load off of them.

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"I love to play guys. I love guys to get on the field and have a role within the game plan. It's just finding out what's going to be the best one for each of those guys and kind of play them around Torch, who we know is really consistent in his role."

Kamo'i Latu, a transfer from Utah, and Preston Zachman, who's battled injuries the past nine months, are listed as potential starters in Wohler's place. Snap counts from last week favored Zachman 14-13 over Latu, but Latu's experience playing against Washington State twice before could help him earn the starting nod. Latu said he's given some tips to teammates about the Cougars' returning offensive players.

Latu had a tackle and pass breakup last week in his debut with UW, the latter play showing the physicality that he can bring to the role.

"With speed comes that physicality, and if you mix those together, it can be some bad business," Latu said. "You see me running down on kickoff, and you should get a clear view on what I do."

Latu has started just one game in his college career, a win last season against USC, but said he keeps the same attitude whether he's a starter or a reserve.

"Honestly, I did both, and I don't see (any) difference," Latu said. "I'm on the sideline and when I'm a backup, I'm ready. I'm fired up to go in, whenever. If someone goes down or the coach needs an extra man, I'm that guy, I'm ready to step up. And whether if I'm starting, I'm bringing the same mentality. I'm ready to go."

Zachman had a series of injuries that have kept him sidelined for about nine months. It started with a back issue last season that held him out of games, then he had a sports hernia — a torn muscle in his lower core — that required surgery and ended his season. He was on track to be available this spring, but recovery was slowed by a hip injury that doctors discovered when he had the hernia surgery. He had surgery on his hip and was cleared to play a week before training camp began last month.

Zachman had two tackles and an interception in 14 snaps against Illinois State, and finished as UW's highest-graded player by PFF.

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"It's something I haven't felt in a long time, it seems like," Zachman said of being healthy. "Just going out there and being able to play, really focus on football, instead of just focusing on, 'OK, am I going to make it to this next practice or next workout?' I think it's given me a lot of confidence just seeing that I can go through a camp, go through a game and not have to worry about injuries."

Leonhard, who is UW's safeties coach, was high on Titus Toler going into the 2021 season after an injury wiped out most of his 2020 season. However, Toler wasn't cleared to play in 2021 and wasn't on UW's roster. Leonhard also said younger players like freshman Austin Brown could be called upon.

Leonhard has rotated safeties often throughout his tenure at UW and he played five in the opener. Washington State won't make doing so easy — the Cougars don't huddle and limit how much substituting a defense can try to achieve.

Leonhard said finding the right spots to sub, whether that's after each series or allowing a player to get a few drives under his belt, is determined by reading the flow of the game.

"I think it's making sure everyone's available and kind of understands through the course of the game when they're going to be up so they're prepared for it," Leonhard said.

Nine of Washington State's 32 passes last week went more than 10 yards in the air, so UW's safeties will mostly be dealing with shorter routes and making tackles in space. That said, the Cougars try to get safeties to bite on shorter routes after they've hit on a few, then take a deep shot.

UW will ask a number of safeties to step in and fill the void left by Wohler, who will be out for at least a few weeks, but that group is confident that they have enough pieces to prevent a step back by the defense.

"I think we're all ready, but you've got to step in," Zachman said. "This is the opportunity that people want. I think you've just got to go in, keep the same mindset that you always have. You just go in getting ready for that one opportunity you might get."

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