EVANSTON, Ill. -- Less than a minute into his freshman season at Northwestern, Matt Harris experienced his “welcome to college football moment.” Harris rammed into three Cal blockers on the opening kickoff of the Wildcats' week 1 game at Cal – “they ran over me,” he says – and suffered an “upper-body” injury. Harris missed the rest of the game.
“I was so excited to get out there and play, and sadly, I came out with an injury,” recalled Harris, who said coaches informed him roughly two weeks before kickoff that he might have an opportunity to play this season. “But I knew that I’d eventually recover.”
In the weeks since, Harris has not only recovered, but become a critical piece in Northwestern’s defensive back rotation. Junior cornerback Daniel Jones’ season-ending knee injury, suffered just before halftime of the Cal game, forced the premature insertion of redshirt freshman Dwight White into the starting lineup.
The result was predictable. Though White had shown promise in practice, and is arguably more athletic than Jones, he is raw and inexperienced – more potential than polish. White immediately became the targeted weak spot in Northwestern’s secondary. Bears receiver Chris Harper burned White on a 52-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, and freshman quarterback Jared Goff continued to pick on White throughout the game.
Subsequent games against Syracuse, Maine and Western Michigan didn't provide an answer. Both White and Harris – who returned the opening kick against the Broncos 47 yards – have struggled at times, and the Wildcats, less than two weeks before hosting No. 4 Ohio State for their Big Ten opener, need someone to take control of the position. Harris continues to show promise in practice, and has impressed teammates with his ability to not only digest constructive criticism from coaches, but apply it.
It may not have happened yet, but Harris could soon supplant White in the depth chart.
“If I get that opportunity, I’ll be thankful for it,” Harris said. “But if I don’t, I’m going to push those guys [other corners] to make them the best that they can be.”
The physical part of the game has been easy for Harris to pick up. He was prepared: in high school, Harris shined on the Illinois high school track and field circuit. And one need only watch a replay of his kick return against Western Michigan to gauge his blinding speed (In May, Harris told InsideNU he ran a 4.35 40-yd dash).
The mental aspect has been more difficult. “I guess the hardest thing is just mentally, the game plan is pretty tough,” he said. “I never thought you could run that many different plays in a game, or have that many different options to run.”
If learning Northwestern’s defensive schemes is difficult for Harris, he’s tackling the problem head-on. Teammates say he diligently takes notes in position meetings, and Harris is eager to accept advice from other defensive backs.
“My teammates make it easy for me,” he said.
This week, Harris is participating in Northwestern’s “minicamp,” condensed bye-week workouts that allow coach Pat Fitzgerald to focus on freshmen, underclassmen and others that haven’t accumulated as many repetitions as two-deep regulars. The goal, Fitzgerald says, is to “re-energize the young guys,” most of whom haven’t gotten as much work in normal weeks leading up to games.
Though most of the players on the two-deep weren’t on the practice field, instead lifting weights or watching film, according to Fitzgerald, Harris welcomed the opportunity to hone his technique.
“It’s just another day for me to get better,” he said.
Last week’s depth chart listed Harris as a backup behind sophomore Nick VanHoose. When the Wildcats’ put out their next edition leading up to the Ohio State game, it would not be a shock if he had displaced White as Northwestern’s No. 2 starting cornerback.