Six cornerbacks rotated in for first-team reps during the University of Wisconsin’s open fall camp practices in August.
Rachad Wildgoose wasn’t one of them. In fact, a different true freshman, Donte Burton, worked his way into that group early and earned playing time in the Badgers’ season-opener against Western Kentucky while Wildgoose remained on the bench.
After playing in just one of UW’s first four contests, Wildgoose is now settling in as an every-week starter for the Badgers.
“He wasn’t quite ready the first few weeks of the year,” UW defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said. “And then all of a sudden, coming off of the bye, you’re like, wow, this kid has improved dramatically. He’s doing the right things, and he’s earned a bigger role. Then due to injuries, all of a sudden he gets a more expanded role and makes the most of that opportunity.”
While UW’s cornerback group continues to battle injuries, Leonhard said Wednesday that he views Wildgoose as a starter even when everyone at the position is healthy.
The Badgers’ bye week in late September served as a turning point for the true freshman from Miramar, Fla. After the break, he saw his first meaningful playing time against Nebraska before making his first career start at Michigan the following week.
“There’s no question about it, (the bye week) was it,” Leonhard said. “He had a different focus. He had a different kind of preparation. Even though we didn’t play a game, he looked different. Every single day, you just saw the improvements and how hard he was working, and it’s carried over from that point forward.”
The only person who expected this fast rise may have been Wildgoose himself. He said after UW’s win over the Cornhuskers that he’s often the most confident player on the field.
A new rule that allows players to see the field in four games and still redshirt likely helped Wildgoose get to this point. Considering the position he found himself in before the season began, coaches may have labeled Wildgoose a redshirt candidate in August and kept him on the scout team.
Wildgoose said he wonders if the rule made his path to the field any different and noted that he wouldn’t have accepted the aforementioned situation if it presented itself under the old redshirt protocol.
“I would have been so mad,” Wildgoose said. “I would have been trying super hard to impress (Leonhard).”
Wildgoose may have found his way onto the field this season one way or another. Now already a starter, he wants to take his game even further.
Leonhard said Wildgoose “wants more” and is eager to develop into someone who can also play in the slot. He’s taken reps in that spot during practice, and sophomore Madison Cone, UW’s top slot corner, said he believes Wildgoose would be the one to move into that role if Cone suffered an injury.
“He’s a very versatile player,” Cone said. “He’s picked up on our stuff really quickly. That’s been the most surprising thing to me. The way he’s been able to just take it all in and produce the way he has has been impressive.
“He showed week in and week out that he knew the stuff and that he could play with the rest of us. When his time came, he took advantage of it.”