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Freshman Cornerback Matt Harris Draws A Key Distinction Between Northwestern and Illinois

A brief and harmless discussion of the schools that extended scholarship offers before he verbally committed to Northwestern was all Matt Harris needed to plant his stake on the purple side of Land of Lincoln antagonism. In the midst of detailing the different coaches that recruited him as a receiver, and those that recruited him as a defensive back, Harris directed a stinging slight at the Illini.

Of all the schools that offered him, a group featuring Wisconsin, Boston College, Western Michigan and Illinois, only the “big-time schools,” Northwestern and Wisconsin, wanted Harris at cornerback.

The rest wanted him at wide receiver.

Seconds later, Harris tried to laugh the whole thing away, but the damage was already done. Harris’ categorical salvo was well-intentioned and well-received. If there was any doubt Harris wasn’t exactly the type of player Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, and Northwestern fans, were looking for – that perhaps the LaGrange, Illinois, native possibly, subliminally, in the deepest pockets of his mind, thought twice about aligning himself with Northwestern over Illinois  – Harris is here to let you know: Illinois doesn’t even belong in the same sentence as Northwestern.

“It is what it is,” were the only words Harris could come up with to explain his characterization.

Once the Illini were out of the picture, Harris, who received an offer from Northwestern early last summer, was impressed with everything Wisconsin had to offer, and after scheduling visits to Madison and Evanston spaced just one week apart, his eventual choice would come down to a simple comparison of campus experiences.

You probably don’t need to me to tell you which experience – which coaches and players and academic buildings and “family atmosphere,” – Harris enjoyed more.

“I just felt like, after that visit, it was a place where I could be comfortable for four years,” he said. “Wisconsin was great, but the experience at Northwestern kind of won me over.”

Playing Big Ten football in his home state was another reason Harris felt the Wildcats were his most sensible choice. He wants his parents to be able to watch him play, and far be it from him to pass up the opportunity to play for a “big-time” school like Northwestern, and not an, ahem, other school, like Illinois.

Last season hammered home Harris’ witty verbal jab with more divergent totality than any stadium PA announcer haughtiness or not-so-subtle post-play cheapshots or Facebook-marshaling, Dillo-Day Threatening, sports cuisine establishment-posturing ever could. Northwestern won 10 games and captured its first bowl win since 1964. Illinois finished 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten), became the laughing stock of vocal Big Ten-purposed message boards and comment sections, and nearly saw its first-year head coach Tim Beckman, fired.

Not even the most ardent Illini diehards can honestly refute Harris’ statement after what transpired in 2012.

“I had always wanted an offer from NU,” he said. “It was great to see them do so well last year, for sure.”

If everything breaks right in preseason camp, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that Harris will compete for a reserve cornerback spot in his first year on campus. Far from it. On one side of the field, sophomore Nick VanHoose is penciled in as the week 1 starter. The other corner spot – which left spring practice with just as much muddled uncertainty and cluttered competition as before it – will be squarely on the line in preseason camp.

Anyone from juniors Daniel Jones and C.J. Bryant to redshirt freshman Dwight White to the three 2013 true freshmen cornerbacks (Harris, Keith Watkins and Marcus McShepard) entering the mix this fall could conceivably play their into an important backup, or even a starting, spot.

The opportunity is there, and Harris is eager to make a run for first-year playing time.

“I’m going to try my best,” he said. “I’m going to try and go get it, but at the same time, I’m a freshman, so I still have a few years.”

Coverage skills and spatial awareness and live-ball instincts are variously critical elements of any lockdown corner’s repertoire. Elite athleticism can separate the merely good from the truly spectacular, and Harris has it in spades.

A quick background check on Harris’ track career at Lyons Township High School will give you the hard facts – his 23-foot long jump, 14.6-second 100 m hurdles time, a spot on the 4 x 100 relay team – but if you want something more compatible with modern football-recognized measurables, here’s what Harris had to say about his most recent 40-time.

“4.35,” he said dryly.

Having wrapped up his track career at the Illinois 3A State Meet over the weekend, Harris will report to Northwestern with the rest of the 2013 class on June 23. He plans to room with fellow cornerback Marcus McShepard, a partnership borne of similar positional goals, and a relationship that will no doubt feature its share of good-natured competition.

Because what are the chances two freshmen cornerbacks from the same class, on a team whose coach has traditionally taken a conservative approach with using redshirt seasons to allocate players’ eligibility timelines as economically as possible, both play their way into first-team status? Preseason camp will offer a more complete assessment of depth chart positioning.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I’m ready to go out there and compete.”

Built-in disdain for the orange team “down state” and freakish athleticism give Harris the ideal mental approach and baseline physical tools he needs to achieve his biggest goals.