For shutdown cornerback Ikegwuonu, gambles pay off

first_imgJEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photoAlthough gambling and football should have little — ifanything — to do with one another, a great cornerback and a great gambler havemore in common than one might believe.Both possess a unique swagger, one that exudes a sense ofconfidence that tiptoes dangerously close to hubris. Both have the uncannyability to remain calm under circumstances that warrant considerable angst.Both understand the double-edged sword of risk taking, which can result ingreat gains and even greater losses. No player exhibits these intangibles morethan University of Wisconsin junior cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. Even his catchymoniker, “Black Jack,” a nickname that has followed him to Camp Randall fromhis playing days at Madison Memorial High School, draws strong parallelsbetween the cornerback position and gambling.On the field, Ikegwuonu is typically matched up one-on-onewith the opposing team’s top receiver.”Cornerback is a tough position. It is really hard mentallyto play the position because you know that you’re not going to make every playand receivers are going to catch some balls,” Ikegwuonu said. “When you’replaying cornerback and you get beat on a deep ball, everybody knows. But youhave to be able to put it behind you and move to the next play.”Over the course of his career at UW, Ikegwuonu hasestablished himself as one of the most feared cornerbacks in the conference.”I don’t even think he knows how much talent or skill hehas,” freshman cornerback Aaron Henry said. “He plays the game so relaxed andcomfortable.”Nobody has come to appreciate Ikegwuonu’s unique combinationof awareness and athleticism more than defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.”He has great speed and size,” Hankwitz said. “He hasexcellent ball skills and he has great coverage ability.”After a 2006 campaign that culminated in an impressivevictory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl, Ikegwuonu and the rest of thedefense were eager to pick up where they had left off. However, amid loftypredictions and high personal expectations, the Badger defense looked a shellof their former selves for much of the 2007 season. The unit struggled mightily,and Ikegwuonu’s coverage often resulted in big plays.”Everybody was talking about how good we did last year andhow good our defense was supposed to be,” Ikegwuonu said. “It is easy to getcomplacent when everyone is telling you how good you should be. I thinkeverybody thought that things would just happen and that we didn’t have to goout there and make things happen ourselves.”As the Badgers’ defensive rankings plummeted, so didIkegwuonu’s confidence. The player who once demoralized opposing receivers wasgone along with his usual confident swagger.”I didn’t really know what was happening. It was just a lackof focus,” Ikegwuonu said. “You just have to focus on every play and do thelittle things right, and then you will have success. As soon as I started toreally focus and not get complacent and use my technique, I started turning myseason around.”Against Michigan, Ikegwuonu reminded everyone why he washeralded as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks. As the Wolverines threatenedto snap the Badgers’ winning streak at home, Ikegwuonu came up with a timelyinterception that sealed a win over the conference rivals.”I was just gearing up for the big play after struggling allyear. On a big down like that, you know they were going to try to get the ballto Mario (Manningham), and I was ready for that,” Ikegwuonu said. “I got a goodjam at the line and just trailed him and he broke in the same time I broke in.I looked back and the ball was right there. I just needed something like thatfor my confidence.”Despite recording only one interception over its course,Ikegwuonu’s stellar play in the second half of the season earned him aunanimous first team All-Big Ten selection.”It says a lot about what everybody else feels about yourability as a player,” Ikegwuonu said. “I am definitely grateful andappreciative to all of those who voted me in.”On New Year’s Day, the Badgers will battle the high-octaneoffense of the Tennessee Volunteers in the Outback Bowl. Ikegwuonu will likelycover Tennessee’s offensive dynamo Lucas Taylor, who has five touchdowns tocomplement a 1,000-yard season. Although the Volunteers’ offense has theability to light up the scoreboard at a whim, with Ikegwuonu on the field, allbets are off.last_img

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