Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
Superlatives are an entertaining way to analyze any college football team. Typically the categories are, shall we say, less than authoritative numerically, and only marginally tenable logically, and the vague subjective nature of it all makes the enterprise entirely more enjoyable. We’ve run through a slew of best-worst type arguments in this space since the end of the 2012 season, and I can understand if you find this line of debate sort of fuzzy and nebulous, but guess what? It’s May, and football isn’t walking through that door for a few months, so the murky superlative arguments are here to stay, at least for the time being. Today’s topic: Northwestern’s most important position battle.
What constitutes most important, you ask? Is it the most impactful on a team’s win-loss record? There’s a thought. The positions with the most responsibilities? Could be. Maybe? I don’t know! But that’s beside the point. What matters is you know the parameters – positions, importance, football, Northwestern, check, check, check – and understand the criteria for selection is as much a debate as the answer itself. Finally, with all that expository muck behind us, and having spun off a deep plea for a liberal interpretation of what follows, the most important position battle for Northwestern this season is at cornerback.
Allow me to start by laying out a list of plausible candidates. Actually, back up – if you’re not a frequent reader of this site, or are only just beginning to catch up on spring football, I wholeheartedly recommend you spend one rainy summertime afternoon reading this, but to spare you the burden in the moment, you should know Northwestern already has one cornerback all but sealed up heading into camp. That would be sophomore Nick VanHoose. It’s the other corner spot that’s up for grabs, the subject of today’s debate, and some of the possible candidates include juniors Daniel Jones and C.J. Bryant, redshirt freshman Dwight White, sophomore Jarrell Williams and true freshmen Keith Watkins, Matt Harris and Marcus McShepard. I won’t attempt to forecast a winner; we’ll hold off until the Wildcats hit preseason camp.
The cornerback position as a unit, not the individual battle within, is what I’m interested in, precisely because it will end up affecting Northwestern’s season more than any other prospective position battle. There are a couple things to sort out on the offensive line, and one of the outside linebacker spots presents and interesting two-man battle (Drew Smith vs. Colin Ellis), but the competition at cornerback, a position that – even after last season’s relative improvements – continues to haunt Northwestern in close games, is the most pressing personnel-related question, and it’s not even close. I mean, just look at the games Northwestern lost last season (and one game, at Syracuse, it probably should have lost). Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin threw for 282 yards in the Lions’ comeback win. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez put up 342 and three scores and Michigan QB Devin Gardner connected on 16 passes for 289 yards, including an…ok, ok, I won’t. In the season-opener at Syracuse, fourth-round draft pick Ryan Nassib shredded the Wildcats with screens and deep balls in equal measure, and finished the afternoon with 482 yards on 45-for-66 passing.
In every one of those games, the bombardment of opponent passing proficiency can’t be pinned down on one single player. An effective pass defense starts at the line of scrimmage, where the defensive line must apply enough pressure to collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks into making uncomfortable throws, and stretches on down to the more easily dissected one-on-one secondary matchups. Northwestern’s pass rush held up its end of the bargain last season, and when VanHoose was on the field (he missed the Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and part of the Nebraska game), Northwestern fielded a balanced pass defense (Penn State and Syracuse the two glaring exceptions), was able to mostly lock down opposing receivers and more closely resembled the unit that finished 2012 ranked seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense at 6.6 yards per attempt than 2011’s ugly 8.5 figure, good for last in the conference.
The defense improved in the aggregate last season, and the marginal progression in the secondary helped the Wildcats’ defensive bottomline, but the biggest yard and score-prevention stride made was in stopping the run. To wit: Northwestern saw its run defense jump from 4.49 yards per rush in 2011, ranking 10th among Big Ten teams, to 3.77 last season, fourth in the conference. The missing piece of the defensive puzzle – and OK, young secondary, still growing, give them time, sure – is the pass defensive maturing into a unit capable of matching the consistent quality of the Wildcats’ linebackers and defensive line.
Having a solid contributor solidify the remaining cornerback spot could push Northwestern towards a more stable – and less prone to McGloin/T-Magic/Nassib/Gardner-type meltdowns – situation. Northwestern just needs to find the right (more arbitrary subjective descriptions!) player to fill that spot, pray injuries don’t screw everything up and watch this young core develop into a position group that can begin to crush the constant laments, like this extended bit, about the instability and relative weakness of Northwestern’s pass defense.