The offseason cornerback battle Daniel Jones won through impressive performances in spring practice and preseason camp didn’t grant him the starting position Jones, and many others, coveted. That’s no fault of Jones; it’s the dismaying product of a play late in the first half of Northwestern’s win over Cal Saturday, when Jones – while committing a pass interference penalty – was carted off the field after injuring his knee, visibly in pain.
The extent of the injury was unknown until Monday, when coach Pat Fitzgerald, at the beginning of his weekly press conference, announced Jones would have surgery on his knee and miss the rest of the season. Jones was considered the weaker of Northwestern’s two starting cornerbacks, the less stable half of the VanHoose-Jones duo, but he was an important part of the defensive backfield all the same, and finding a viable replacement will not be easy.
Probably the best candidate is Dwight White, a redshirt freshman who replaced Jones in the game Saturday and had mixed results. Cal freshman quarterback Jared Goff immediately tested White, throwing several passes his way, and White looked unprepared. He played better later in the game, an encouraging sign for the Wildcats, but he shouldn't be expected to take over in Jones' stead without some lost coverage value lost in the transfer.
This is a big loss for Northwestern.
For all the criticism Jones was weathered throughout his Northwestern career, most notably following last season’s excruciating loss at Michigan (in which White gave up a deep pass from quarterback Devin Gardner to receiver Roy Roundtree, who lay prone on the ground while completing a circus-act reception, to put Michigan in field goal range and send the game into overtime), he was the best option Northwestern had to insert at the second cornerback spot. Jones had shown great improvement throughout spring and fall practice, stoking excitement for a turn-the-page revival in 2013, but those hopes will need to be tabled for now.
For the rest of the season, Northwestern will likely use a combination of White, junior C.J. Bryant and true freshman Matthew Harris, another player injured in Saturday’s game (Fitzgerald said Monday that Harris was “day-to-day”), to fill the void left by Jones’ abrupt removal from the starting lineup. White, the starter, will get most of the playing time at the No. 2 cornerback spot, while Harris and Bryant should get more looks in special DB-heavy sets.
"Dwight had gone into the game knowing he was probably going to be in our dime package. He took a lot of reps throughout the offseason, spring ball and fall camp, and now all of the sudden he's thrust into a starting role,” Fitzgerald said about White. “So one man's injury in a really difficult time is another man's opportunity, so this is now Dwight's opportunity."
As has typically been the case with Northwestern in recent seasons, there is always some measure of concern about the pass defense. There was plenty of optimism about 2013’s group. Safety Ibraheim Campbell had morphed into a bona fide All-Conference type; Traveon Henry complemented him well with great athleticism and fearless playmaking; VanHoose acquitted himself well in 2012, and had an offseason of outside praise and bar-raising expectations to recommend him; and Jones appeared to be cleaning up the mistakes – aimless positioning, misread coverages, physical battles helplessly lost, and the like – that befell him his first two seasons.
Now the secondary, which gave up 455 yards (though at 7.1 yards per attempt, the optics look worse than reality) to Cal Saturday, has new questions to answer. The optimism about an athletic, schematically sound, balanced group of defensive backs – already soured by Goff’s passing display Saturday – will be overcome with fears, borne in part of recent NU football history, of a pass defense nightmare anew. To date that sort of speculation is overwrought – it is unfair to critically judge Northwestern’s pass defense sans-Jones without first seeing it play a game.
Saturday, against a Syracuse passing offense that mustered just 189 yards on 16-for-37 throws against Penn State over the weekend, will not provide the best measuring stick for the quality of Northwestern’s patched-up secondary. White, and whoever else is forced into action more frequently because of Jones’ absence, will get plenty of action, but a conclusive assessment of Northwestern’s defensive backfield cannot be made until later in the season.
There are bigger challenges ahead.