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Badgers' Shelton happy to grow up fast

Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton doesn't talk like a freshman or act like a freshman. Last season, he often didn't play like a freshman, recording four interceptions, three more than any other Badger, and a team-high seven pass breakups.

One of two early enrollees in Wisconsin's 2013 recruiting class, Shelton displays an uncommon maturity. Most players his age at a position known for bravado would beam about four interceptions in their first college season. Shelton thinks he should have had eight.

Most Wisconsin fans can't bear to watch last season's game at Ohio State because of the what-ifs in a 31-24 loss. Arguably no play brought more pain than a dropped interception by Shelton just before halftime. On the next play, Ohio State fired a 40-yard touchdown pass with one second left on the clock.

Shelton watches that play a lot. He also watches Wisconsin's regular-season finale against Penn State, a stunning home loss in which the Badgers surrendered 339 pass yards, four touchdowns and their three longest plays allowed all season.

"I watch the bad games, honestly," Shelton told ESPN.com this spring. "You talk to my coaches and they'll tell you I'm probably my worst critic. When I look back, I definitely see the opportunities that I had. Everybody brings up Ohio State. There's a couple other plays that, instead of PBUs, I could turn them into interceptions.

"But the best part about it is it gives me something else to push forward to this year."

Shelton's approach is exactly what coaches want from players who had success as freshmen. But just to make sure, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen met with the 5-foot-9, 172-pound cornerback about a week into spring practice, just before Shelton and his teammates left for spring break.

I don't want to see a sophomore slump, Andersen told Shelton.

The directive probably had more to do with Andersen than Shelton.

"I'm paranoid when it comes to stuff like that," Andersen admitted. "So I bring it up and we talk about it and I did not see it, which was a great thing. To his credit, he kept on going. He's got high expectations for himself, and he handles them in the right way."

After Wisconsin lost seven defensive starters from 2013, including three players selected in the NFL draft -- safety Dezmen Southward, linebacker Chris Borland and nose guard Beau Allen -- the coaches spent the spring shifting players from position to position. The goal: to upgrade the unit's speed. Two of the only players who stayed put were the cornerbacks: Shelton and junior Darius Hillary.

Shelton spent the session sharpening his game. He worked on 50-50 balls, an area opponents with tall receivers could try to exploit because of Shelton's frame, and improved his pre-snap recognition with wide receiver splits, potential coverage changes and more.

"I give credit to [cornerbacks coach] Ben Strickland," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "Ben's a stickler for details and Sojourn's been brought up that way and doesn't know anything different. He's searching for those little details that can put him over the top.

"He's not one to rest on his laurels."

Junior safety Mike Caputo sees Shelton as a veteran and a leader, noting that age isn't as big a factor as experience, of which Shelton received plenty in 2013. With Borland and others no longer around, the Badgers defense needs some new voices.

Shelton, who started 12 games in 2013, is happy to speak up.

"Coach always talks about playing with juice and swagger and when you make a play, be excited about it," he said. "That's one of my strengths. People don't understand how hard it is to play corner in college football against so many good receivers. You have to play with the confidence that you can go out there and shut these guys down.

"It is difficult, but at the same time, that's what makes it fun."

Many talented young players struggle to grow up. Shelton embraces his accelerated evolution at Wisconsin.

He sets high standards for himself, both in the immediate and the long term.

"I want to be the best corner in the Big Ten," he said. "It's something I’m pursuing. If I continue to move forward and that becomes the role, I'll be excited to take it on."