The 2009 season might have marked a renaissance for Wisconsin football, but not for Badgers defensive back Aaron Henry.
After his surgically repaired right knee forced him to miss the 2008 season, Henry had high hopes for himself last fall. He felt great during spring practice, and even after having a third knee procedure less than six weeks before the opener, the cornerback remained confident about his comeback.
"But somewhere along the line, man, there just wasn’t any carryover," Henry said. "Those first couple of games, I was waiting on it to come and I wasn’t going out there and taking what was mine.
"And two games turned into the season."
Henry started the first two games and struggled before losing the top job to Antonio Fenelus. He served as Wisconsin's top nickelback and recorded 18 tackles and four pass breakups, but his performance certainly didn't meet his standards.
"Last season was horrible," Henry said. "There were times where I felt real good, but there were times when I felt like, ‘Man, is this the game I want to play?' I was questioning myself, I was questioning my ability, I was just questioning the things that were going on around me because I had so much expectations for myself, and I didn’t fulfill them."
Henry is getting another chance this season, but at a new position. After playing cornerback for three years, he shifted to free safety this spring. Wisconsin needs to replace Chris Maragos, and Henry is the projected starter at safety alongside senior Jay Valai.
A new position has brought new challenges for Henry, who brings good size to the safety spot (6-foot, 202 pounds).
"It’s a completely different mindset as far as safety goes," he said. "You’ve got to pretty much be the field general. At corner, you’re on an island, and you’re doing a lot more physically because you’re one-on-one with [the wide receiver]. At safety, it’s more of like a chess game against the quarterback as far as the pass goes, and then you’ve got to read your keys and come up and support the run."
Henry also is adjusting to his new partner in the backfield: the hard-hitting, lively and garrulous Valai.
"Different personalities, different body types, different backgrounds, different influences," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said.
It's tough to argue with that assessment.
Henry is reserved and addresses reporters, even those just a few years older than him, with "sir" or "ma'am." Valai provides some of the biggest hits and best quotes in the Big Ten. The 5-foot-9 Valai admittedly has "little man's syndrome," while Henry has a bigger frame.
"Jay Valai and anybody are two different types of guys," Henry said. "He's outspoken. He’s always going to express his opinion. He’s right most of the time. He’s a real good guy. It’s definitely fun back there with him."
Here's Valai on the interesting pairing.
"It's not as bad as cookies and cream with me and Maragos. Aaron's a different cat. Me and him have been good friends for a long time. He's just ready to get a fresh start. Every day, I'm out here working extra, Aaron's out there. If you have a question, he's going to answer it. He's going to help us out in a million ways."
Henry hopes he can complement Valai's ferocious tackling with strong ball skills.
The junior from Immokalee, Fla., has spent the spring trying to improve his breaks on the ball and his tackling. Henry said new defensive backs coach Chris Ash noticed that Wisconsin's players were aggressive tacklers but lacked a bit in their fundamentals.
"I may not come up and lay the kill shot," Henry said, "but all spring we’ve been emphasizing coming up and making the tackle."
Although Henry didn't think so at the time, he now admits that the knee surgery before last season hindered his progress and messed with his head, too. If he can stay healthy through the summer, he might fill a big hole for team with Big Ten title aspirations.
"For the rest of my life, I think my knee is going to be aching here and aching there, just because of the surgeries I have had on it," he said. "But I’m going to take this year as another year and approach it in a whole different mindset. I’m trying to send these seniors out, Jay Valai, especially, with a bang. He wants a Rose Bowl, he wants a national championship.
"Hopefully, by the end of the season, I can talk to you again and tell you that we accomplished our goals."