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One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 9: Cornerback

You guys are SO LUCKY I decided not to write an entire full-length post about Watch the Throne. Because none of you would have cared and regardless of what I wrote I would have changed my mind 15 minutes later. (Note: If you want me to write a full-length post about Watch the Throne I'll totally do it. Point is, it's not as good as MBDTF, but I really should shut up ASAP.)

Days Left Til Football Season: 25.

Who dun it?: Last year, the corner spots had two consistent owners: Jordan Mabin and Justan Vaughn. Mabin handled some of the better wide receivers in the league with relative grace, leading the Big Ten in passes defended, while Vaughn, well, didn't. Northwestern's pass defense caught a reprieve last year from criticism as most teams chose to hammer home the run. But the defensive backs certainly struggled in the losses to Michigan State, Wisconsin (where Scott Tolzien threw four touchdowns and 230 yards on only 19 attempts) and allowed walk-on Matt McGloin to toss four TD's against Penn State. Then, the Cats were blown out of the water by Texas Tech, with Taylor Potts completing a Persa-esque 43-of-56 passes. NU's best defensive performances against the pass were when opponents simply opted not to throw. The primary backup was Mike Bolden who saw time as a nickel back. The unit only picked off two passes, one on a blatant overthrow.

Who's gone?: Vaughn departs.  The rise of Mabin came at the expense of Vaughn, who was injured in the second game of the 2008 season and didn't regain his starting spot until last year - probably would have happened anyway, as Mabin was a star freshman that year and the more talented corner, but a bummer for Vaughn, whose career highlight is probably having a violently overthrown pass fall into his hands at Vanderbilt last year.

What makes a good corner boy?


1. Keep your eyes open: Awareness is the most critical aspect of being a cornerback - reading routes and the quarterback to make sure you don't get beat.

2. Don't trust nobody: Jordan Mabin assumed Aaron Bates was going to punt on a critical fourth down play against Michigan State - instead, he got turned the wrong way and gave up a completion that would allow MSU to take the go ahead score. His trust hurt him.

3. Keep the count short: I don't know how this helps you play cornerback.

4. If you ain't got no respect, it means you ain't got nothin: Sure, part of the reason Darrelle Revis is a great cornerback is because he's a great cornerback. But some of it is because his reputation precedes him: teams respect his skills enough to avoid him, rendering their No. 1 wide receiver essentially useless.

Who's got next?: The depth chart has been given a jolt by Jeravin Matthews, who has yet to play a down at cornerback that I know of in his collegiate career. First a wide receiver who specialized in returning kicks as a true freshman, then a sparingly used running back, then a specialist last year, Matthews is now listed as the starting corner. Demetrius Dugar, who you may remember from the hit show "Over 200 Yards Receiving for Mike Williams" when he was forced from fourth on the depth chart to starter in a single week in 2009 against Syracuse, is backing him up and will challenge him for time. Mabin holds the spot on the other side with Ricky Weina as a backup. I assume Bolden's absence from the depth chart means he's a nickelback, but, well, who knows - I'd assume he'd be in line to play should something happen. 

Is that an improvement?: Mabin should be at his sharpest in his senior season and is one of the defensive players to truly get excited for. Matthews is extremely intriguing: he's probably the fastest player on the team and his athleticism has been bandied about as long as he's been at NU, but you have to be moderately concerned about someone as green as Matthews taking over full-time, since learning how to become a cornerback isn't precisely easy. We know he's capable of tackling people when he's running full-speed at them and they aren't moving from his work as a gunner: how about bringing a guy down one-on-one in man-to-man coverage? We'll have to wait and see how comfortable Matthews is in his new position.

Rodger's three wishes:

1. Tackling. This seems like something you forget about in a cornerback, but the lack of ability of NU corners to wrap up guys as soon as they get beat has turned many a mid-range reception into a big play. Not to be underestimated.

2. Leave Matthews on special teams: NU has somewhat of a dichotomy between their best players and their worst players athletically. If you don't believe me, watch when Vince Browne plays special teams: they are alarmingly more successful with their most dominant athlete on the field. However, this comes with the risk of injury and tires players out, leaving them less liable to be effective when they actually have to play, meaning Browne might sit out the first few plays of a drive after playing on a return unit, hurting the defense. Matthews isn't irreplaceable as a cornerback, so far as we know; we've never even seen him play there. However, he's the best damn gunner in the conference. His ability to beat blockers downfield and stick punt returners was absolutely awesome. Of 61 punts, only 13 were returned, in part because of Matthews' ability to get downfield fast and force a fair catch. When fair catches didn't happen, opponents returned punts for only 3.3 yards, mainly because at least four punts that I remember resulted in the returner being stood up as soon as he caught it, not expecting Jeravin to be breathing down their neck. If Matthews is a great corner,  this point will be moot. but he saves NU two or three yards on every punt and pretty much guarantees no punt return will turn into a TD. I think that's pretty valuable.

3. It's a fake. IT'S A FAKE.