Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton knew he'd find success. He knew he'd overcome critics who dismissed his 5-foot-9 frame. He knew he'd play a big role for the Badgers.
But the true freshman, who started 11 games this season, just didn't realize that would all come so quickly.
"I had confidence in myself," he told ESPN.com with a laugh. "I just didn't envision success this early. But I was able to get that opportunity, and my whole thing was just to run with it and be confident in myself."
Shelton couldn't foresee a regular season that ended with a team-high seven pass breakups and four interceptions. The rest of the team finished with just five combined picks. So it's fair to say the youngster played a major role in helping the Badgers reach the Capital One Bowl, where they will take on SEC foe South Carolina.
Shelton and the UW secondary will have their hands full with Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw, who has thrown only one interception this season in 259 pass attempts.
Shelton always knew he had the ability, but he couldn't be blamed if he harbored a twinge of doubt back in January. The Florida native, who had never before built a snowman, landed in the frigid Badger State at 5-9, 150 pounds -- about 20 pounds lighter than the starting kicker, Jack Russell.
The cornerback heard plenty about his size. His cousin subscribed to a recruiting site back when he was committed to Florida State, and his relative would read aloud fan posts every so often -- about how he was too small, how he'd wind up a bust and how he needed to add meat on those bones. When Shelton switched his commitment to Wisconsin, in part because he wanted to move away from home, those same doubts followed.
But the quick learner with the quicker closing speed entered Madison at 150 pounds of pure determination. He just brushed off the familiar refrain and focused on adding strength and contributing early.
"It was something that everyone talked about," said Shelton, who has gained 22 pounds since enrolling at Wisconsin. "And my whole thing is that, yeah, size does matter -- but it's more about the confidence that comes with it.
"So, yeah, I am small. But I knew if I got under someone like a great strength and conditioning coach, a great weight room program and great teammates -- then I would go out and handle that size issue and play to the best of my ability."
That size hasn't seemed like much of an issue this season. The DB, who now checks in at 172 pounds, is fourth on his team with 26 solo tackles and also managed to produce a team-high 11 pass deflections. With the loss of three key starters since last year, head coach Gary Andersen needed to turn to some untested prospects this season. And that's where Shelton stepped in.
Andersen noticed the rookie's swagger in spring ball almost immediately. And that parlayed into a strong early fall, when Andersen was reassured by the freshman's progress.
"He locked down that spot pretty early in fall camp, and it was his," Andersen said. "He's continued to grow as a young man. ... He's done a tremendous, tremendous job as a freshman at a very difficult position to play. And he will be a tremendous leader and a tremendous player as we move forward."
Of course, Andersen might have forgotten to tell Shelton about his locked-up position in the preseason. A confused Shelton first learned of his Game 1 start about three days before kickoff. Via Twitter.
Fans started congratulating him and the press started tweeting out pictures of the depth chart, but Shelton refused to believe it. It wasn't until "Coach A" -- Andersen -- finally sat Shelton down to explain the decision, and the trust he had in the rookie, that Shelton finally believed his own ears.
He initially thought, if he worked hard, he might earn a start around the middle of the season. But he has quickly shown this coaching staff, and the rest of the Big Ten, that he's a player to watch out for.
And, as a result, expectations for himself have only been magnified.
"I want to finish this season strong. And when the opportunity comes, when the time comes, I want to show what I can do."