In at No. 4 on our Most Important Player rankings is Keith Watkins, who looks to slide into the starting cornerback slot vacated by the departed Nick VanHoose. Watkins got a lot of experience last season and generally looked pretty solid in his time. But his role this season will be much, much expanded. Is he up to the task? Zach Pereles and Ian McCafferty debate.
Zach Pereles (Rank: 3): Ask why Northwestern was so successful last year, and any somewhat knowledgeable fan will tell you "the defense." But it wasn't just "the defense." It was the passing defense. Northwestern had the third-most efficient pass defense last year, led by Pro Football Focus's No. 1 coverage corner, Nick VanHoose. Now, he's gone and Keith Watkins is in his place. That alone makes Watkins one of the most important guys on the team. If he's up to the task of taking VanHoose's place, Northwestern could have similar success defending the pass, even with a depleted front four. If not, Northwestern's defense could fall off steeply.
Additionally, Watkins needs to prove he can stay healthy. If he can't, who knows what Northwestern has on the back end? We're not even 100 percent sure what we're getting out of Watkins now, but he's by far the most certain thing at the cornerback spot behind Matt Harris.
Third, he also contributes on special teams, making him important in that aspect. I just have trouble thinking he's not hugely important to this team. Ian, you see it differently, though. Why's that?
Ian McCafferty (Rank: NR): You know, I originally had Watkins at No. 10 on my list before switching him out for Kyle Queiro at the last minute. I know Watkins has a big role as the second cornerback, but similar to what I said about Blake Hance I just think there are more important players on the team than Watkins. I agree that a good pass defense is vital to Northwestern's success this year, but I think that relies more on a great pass rush and its two great ballhawking safeties than on Watkins. We saw at times last year that when the pass rush wasn't getting to the quarterback, opposing teams were able to move the ball.
Also, I think Nick VanHoose was sorta sneaky bad at times last season. Just look at Purdue's first play from scrimmage against Northwestern if you don't believe me. I don't really think Watkins has to be that great for him to be a solid replacement. We've seen time and time again that defenses can survive with one shutdown corner (Matthew Harris), and then just someone who's not a sieve on the other side. I think Watkins is important enough to be in consideration for the Top 10, but I personally think he ends up just outside.
ZP: I think that's why we disagree. Cornerbacks are best when you don't notice them, because that means nothing is happening near them. When you know who was covering a guy, it's usually bad for the corner — though not always, as we saw against Nebraska.
Plus, I think it's very important for this team to have two good corners, especially if the defensive line play drops off this year. A good secondary helps a defensive line just as a good defensive line helps a secondary. This year, I envision the defensive line play falling off, so the cornerbacks will be under even more of a microscope, and thus their play even more important.
IM: I definitely still think that Watkins will be important, I just think he'll be about as important as Nick VanHoose was last year. Meaningful to the team, but not one of the main guys, like Anthony Walker, Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson, that you would immediately point to as a huge part of the defense. I'd actually argue that out of the four starting defensive backs (Harris, Igwebuike, Queiro, Watkins), he's the least important. I think the safeties will be crucial to the success of the defense in 2016.
I will also say, that while we aren't really that sure who the next man up behind Watkins is, Northwestern does theoretically have some solid candidates. There's a decent young core of defensive backs behind Watkins, led by Trae Williams and Montre Hartage, but both of them are still pretty raw, so only time will tell. Watkins is clearly the starter, but hopefully there's enough depth behind him that Northwestern doesn't have a crisis due to ill-timed injuries.
ZP: A lot is up in the air for the defense in 2016, and Keith Watkins will hopefully provide a solid answer to the "Who will replace Nick VanHoose?" question. He looked solid last year, but this year is a big jump as far as snaps played, and moving from slot corner to outside is no easy task. If he's up to the task, that's one fewer position Pat Fitzgerald has to worry about.