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Northwestern football offseason questions: Will Matthew Harris start over Daniel Jones at cornerback?

Over the next few months, with no bowl game to talk or write about, we’ll pose a series of forward-looking questions regarding Northwestern’s 2014 season. Some of them will be very specific, some of them won’t. At best, our “offseason questions” feature will be a fun way to pass the time before spring football starts; At worst, fans will be so disappointed with Northwestern’s 2013 season, they won’t pay attention to anything even remotely connected to Wildcats football until August. Email us at insidenu@gmail.com or tweet at @insidenu if you have any queries you’d like us to address.

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Will Matthew Harris start over Daniel Jones at cornerback?

The 2013 season did not begin the way Matt Harris wanted it to. Harris injured himself on the opening kick of Northwestern’s season-opener at Cal when he attempted to plow through three Golden Bears blockers. Harris rebounded, worked his way into the cornerback rotation and supplanted Dwight White – who stepped in after Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the first half against Cal – as the Wildcats’ starting no. 2 corner after White got burned on a touchdown against Minnesota. Harris made his first career start a week later at Iowa.

One of two true freshman to play for Northwestern in 2013, Harris appeared to improve over the course of the season: He made fewer mistakes in coverage, tackled more effectively and seemed to better understand Northwestern’s defensive scheme. If Harris, one of the fastest players on the team, can pack a few more pounds onto his 5-11, 180-pound frame, he has the potential to grow into one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

But there’s a chance he won’t even start next season. The injured Jones will be back and, presuming the rehabilitation for his knee injury went well, ready to assume the starting cornerback spot (with Nick VanHoose manning the other side) he lost when he injured himself last season. But has Harris, after an impressive debut season in which he made strides seemingly by the week, earned the right to begin 2014 as the starter?

This is a tough question. Jones was Northwestern’s second best cornerback coming out of preseason camp. Had he not gotten injured against Cal, he probably would have had his best season yet as a college player. But because we only got to see Jones play roughly one half against Cal, it’s hard to know how good he really would have been over 12 games. His performance in previous seasons should also be considered, but it seems unfair to judge Jones solely on how he performed two and three years ago (i.e. the tail end of 2011, when he replaced the injured Jordan Mabin against Michigan State and starter the Meineke Car Care Bowl and 2012, when he started seven games).

Maybe Jones was on the verge of having a breakout year in 2013; his performance in practice suggested he would have made, at the very least, marginal improvements over his 2012 performance. The point is, it’s not inconceivable that Jones would have been better in 2013 than he was in 2012 or 2011. Besides 29 minutes of game time against Cal – a sample size so small, it’s almost insignificant – there’s no evidence to dispute that premise.

It's also possible that Jones won't be the same player he was before he sustained a major knee injury. Scores of players have come back from knee injuries before (and the success rates of surgical procedures and rehabilitation plans have improved over time), so it's not fair to draw any conclusions about his health before seeing him play again. That said, maybe the drop-off in athleticism that often accompanies ligament tears will inhibit his ability to cover opposing receivers. Maybe not.

Then there’s Harris, who showed plenty of potential in 2013, and whose future – provided he can bulk up and use the work ethic and attention to detail his teammates talked about at practices throughout the season to improve technically – is very promising. It should also be noted that Fitzgerald, according to commenter Chasmo, has been “talking up” Harris (along with Godwin Igwebuike, Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins) at alumni events.

The most sensible approach to this debate: “Wait until spring practice.” In the meantime, though, the question lingers: does it seem likely that Harris, based on what he showed last season, is ready to keep his starting spot next season? Or will redshirt junior Jones take his spot back? Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s customary preference to play upperclassmen over younger players is well-known, but if Harris is better, he should be the starter, right?

It’s one of many questions to ponder in the coming months.