by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
When Jimmy Hall first arrived at Northwestern, he thought he was going to be a wide receiver. Now he’s a safety, with some nickelback and outside linebacker sprinkled in. On the surface, that appears to be a strange combination, but in the Wildcats’ defense, it’s not out of the ordinary.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Joseph Jones was recruited as a safety, but put on weight in the offseason to become a linebacker and will likely crack the two-deeps this season. Similarly, redshirt freshman Eric Wilson was considered either a safety or a linebacker full time out of high school, then switched to linebacker full-time at NU.
“We’re trying to bring in big safeties who play linebacker,” Fitzgerald said, “and we’re trying to bring in really, really athletic safeties who play safety.”
For every big safety who switches to linebacker, like Jones, NU has one of those “really, really athletic safeties.” Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry are the two likely starters at that position this season, and they give the Wildcats one of the better safety combinations in the Big Ten. They’re athletic, but they’re also big hitters.
Then there’s Hall, who can play both safety and linebacker if needed.
“At the beginning of the season, I had some injuries and had some problems, so I never really found my niche on the team, my identity,” Hall said. “And then as I got back into the swing of the things into the season, I kind of found a role as the hybrid safety/linebacker-type.”
Hall’s story is indicative of Pat Fitzgerald’s recruiting philosophy, as a whole. Rather than trying to fit high school players to a certain mold, the Wildcats often look for the most athletic, most talented players they can find, and then figure out where they fit on the team after they get on campus. Fitzgerald is known to switch his players’ positions several times, sometimes before and sometimes after they arrive at NU.
Venric Mark was a running back in high school, but came in as a receiver before eventually switching back to a full-time running back who can also play slot receiver. Stephen Buckley was a high school quarterback who was recruited as a cornerback, but NU brought him in as a running back and he’s not the understudy to Mark’s role. In this year’s class, cornerback Matt Harris played wide receiver in high school, while cornerback Keith Watkins was a running back. High school running back Godwin Igwebuike will play either running back or safety at NU.
Many coaches feel it’s best to keep a player at a certain position so he can learn the ins and outs of that position, but NU doesn’t mind having players in hybrid roles, and for Hall, it has been an easy transition.
“(Playing linebacker is) kind of like playing safety in our defense,” Hall said, “because we kind of have to know both linebacker and safety kind of, because we have to play both.”
Having hybrid players, particularly on defense, can help NU adapt its unit each week to match up better with its opponent. Hall’s versatility was useful in the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State, where he saw time at safety, nickelback and linebacker.
“They had me one-on-one a lot against (receiver Chad Bumphis),” he said, “so they wanted to get a quicker guy on him, but still have the same tackling ability out on the field.”
This year, Hall’s role on the team will continue to change, depending on the matchup. He may not stick to one position, but in NU’s defense, that’s far from a concern.