It was getting toward the end of Thursday's practice and the competitiveness had ramped up. Cornerback Nick VanHoose was lined up against quarterback-turned-wide-receiver Christian Salem on the near side of the field. The two were split wide of the formation, just steps away from the group of offensive players waiting for reps.
"Hey 23, you ain't got nothin'!" they jawed at the junior defensive back. "Twenty-three likes Nickelback!"
The ball was snapped and, immediately, an excited cheer emerged from the offensive players. Salem had beaten VanHoose off the line and the cornerback had fallen to the turf.
"I was falling all day today," VanHoose said after practice. "All day. I have no idea why. Probably because I got a lot on my mind, I've got two tests tomorrow. Just a lot going on in my head. But it's not an excuse."
In fact, VanHoose said that it was probably his worst practice of the year.
The Ohio-native began his career as Wildcat in a major way, starting 10 games as a freshman in 2012. He was tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions and broke up seven passes. In 2013, VanHoose didn't seem to make a leap. He was getting beat in ways he hadn't the previous season and finished with eight pass break ups and no interceptions in 12 games.
VanHoose's start to 2013, though, was even more disappointing.
The three-year starter was burned for two touchdowns in Northwestern's season-opening loss to Cal.
Since, VanHoose has turned into a force. The cornerback has already broken up nine passes in just five games. Against Western Illinois and Wisconsin, he had three breakups each.
Even his coach, Pat Fitzgerald has noticed. On Monday, Fitzgerald said that he thought VanHoose's performance against the Badgers was one of the best of his career.
"I've probably been more aggressive (this season)," VanHoose said of his performances, "and our defensive playcall style seems to be more aggressive."
VanHoose isn't the fastest cornerback and he makes up for it, in part, with his anticipation.
On that play especially, VanHoose has to break at exactly the right time. As soon as he sees the quarterback commit to throwing to his man, he immediately breaks off the route and heads toward the flight of the ball. VanHoose gets there at the last possible moment and tips the ball away. If he was just a half-step late on his break, it would have been, in all likelihood, a Western Illinois touchdown.
The decision as to whether to play it safe or go after the ball is pretty simple for VanHoose. If he is in something his coaches call "winning position" (when he's in the "upfield shoulder position"), it gives him the opportunity to "at a minimum, be in position to bat it down."
Mentally, VanHoose said that there's no doubt about getting to the ball once he makes his break.
"It's got to be confidence," he said. "If you're already doubting in your mind, than you've lost already."
VanHoose and Northwestern have managed to turn their season around in a big way during the three-game winning streak, even if they may have stumbled out of the gate. But it seems as though the cornerback's confidence has never wavered.
Oh by the way, on that play where the ex-quarterback beat VanHoose in practice, VanHoose got up off the ground and recovered in time to breakup the pass.