Earlier this year, when Northwestern looked like it once again had a cornerback problem on its hands, I got the chance to speak with the Wildcats' defensive backs coach, Jerry Brown — a rarity, since Brown isn't a big fan of talking to the media. Much to my surprise, he was very honest on his coaching and recruiting strategies, and he talked about the difficulty of finding corners, in particular. The most interesting part of the Q&A was about recruiting:
Has your recruiting in recent years improved in the secondary?
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. We made a point of trying to really, really recruit hard at that position, because that’s one of the positions that’s really tough to recruit — the secondary and also on the d-line. So we really worked hard in both of those areas to upgrade ourselves, you could say, at those respective positions.”
"You look for guys, especially on the corner, that have an instinct to be out there. It’s hard to really say that a guy has a mental toughness to play out there, because you ask a high school coach, what’s he gonna say? He’s gonna say, ‘Yeah he’s a tough kid. He can do it, coach, he can do it all.’ So you kind of have to get lucky with that one.”
Have you gotten lucky in recent years?
“Yeah, I think we have. I think we have.”
That was on Oct. 9, before NU landed four-star corner Parrker Westphal and before freshmen Matt Harris and Dwight White really started to improve. Since then, the Wildcats have gotten luckier, and a whole lot better. In 2011 and 2012, in particular, the secondary really held NU back. After some growing pains in 2013, the difference in 2014 should be striking. Just take a look at the roster:
Nick VanHoose, Jr — VanHoose seemed to regress at the beginning of 2013, but he improved toward the end of the season. He's still NU's No. 1 corner — at least in the mind of Pat Fitzgerald — and he'll likely have a starting role again next year. He's not going to be an All-Big Ten guy, but he's about as consistent and reliable as college cornerbacks come. That's a lot better than what the Wildcats have had to work with through a lot of the past few years.
Matt Harris, So — Harris improved throughout his true freshman season, and fair or not, NU fans have very high expectations for him. He's very quick, and with an offseason in the weight room, he should be even better. Is he All-Big Ten caliber? Time will tell. But his potential is sky high.
Dwight White, So — White caught a lot of flack this season, and while some of it was deserved, a lot of it was irrational. He got burned immediately when entering the Cal game, but it was his first collegiate game and he was thrown into the fire. He improved as the season went on, and while he isn't likely to start, he should be a productive member of the rotation.
Daniel Jones, Sr — Jones was inconsistent in 2012, but he earned the starting job in 2013 before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Cal. He's going to have a tough battle for a starting spot next fall, but he's certainly in the mix.
Parrker Westphal, Fr — Westphal was perhaps NU's most highly-touted recruit in a very strong 2014 recruiting class. Fitzgerald is always skeptical of playing freshmen early, but if they're good enough, he'll play them. Westphal might fall into that category, and he'll be the first early enrollee of the Fitzgerald era, so he'll be there for spring practice. If he's all he's hyped up to be, he definitely has a chance to see the field.
Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins, RS FR — It's tough to say what to expect of these two, but both were welcome additions in the 2013 recruiting class because of the lack of solid depth at corner. The tables have obviously turned, but that isn't to say they won't see the field. Watkins, in particular, had a decent amount of hype coming out of high school and can play multiple positions.
Luck? Yeah, I'd say Jerry Brown has had a little bit of luck over the past two years. Now comes the fun part — sorting everything out. It's nearly impossible to give a projection of next year's starters right now. VanHoose and Harris probably have the edge, but they have a lot of talent to give them a run for their money.
Cornerback could be NU's deepest position in 2014. Given the disaster of 2011 and the inconsistency in 2012 and the early part of 2013, that's a minor miracle. Sometimes, you have to get lucky, and after a few years of misses, luck finally looks to be on the Wildcats' side again — at least when it comes to recruiting cornerbacks.