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Northwestern football position preview: Cornerbacks

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The team loses Nick VanHoose and will rely on inexperienced options

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

The next position up is cornerback, which has some questions heading into 2016.

Overview

Returning starters (career starts): Matt Harris (Sr.) (28)

Other returners: Keith Watkins (Jr.), Montre Hartage (So.)

Redshirt Freshmen: Trae Williams, Alonzo Mayo, Joe Bergin

Incoming Freshmen: Roderick Campbell, Brian Bullock

One look at the list of players listed above and you'll realize that there aren't a whole lot. And it's true. Strictly numbers-speaking, there are not a lot of cornerbacks, especially with Marcus McShepard moving to wide receiver and the graduation of Nick VanHoose. Additionally, Parrker Westphal heads to safety. Harris is the undisputed leader, and behind him is Watkins. But after that, there's not a lot of experience. Montre Hartage only saw action on special teams, and behind him, no one has played a single down of college-level defense.

Key Player

Matt Harris

You could easily argue that Watkins is the key player here. In fact, he came in at No. 4 on our Most Important Players list. But this is now Matt Harris's position group and really his secondary. He's the senior member of the back line of the defense, and he's one of the top returning cornerbacks in the Big Ten. But Harris is so important to this position group not only because of his skill, but also because he needs to be healthy. Harris has had injuries in each of his first three seasons. He's Northwestern's best cornerback by far, and without him, the position is really, really shallow.

Big Question

Who steps up as the slot corner?

Harris steps in to the No. 1 corner slot vacated by VanHoose, and Watkins slides to No. 2 behind Harris. Watkins has experience there from last year, starting three games, including the bowl game against Tennessee. Now who is No. 3? Last year, the Northwestern defense was so good because it had four outstanding corners, with McShepard and Watkins manning the nickel and dime packages. We have no clue as to who will man those sub-packages now. Hartage is the lone guy with a year of experience in the system that has actually played on the field. Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo both redshirted and will compete for time. It also wouldn't be a huge shock for top recruit Roderick Campbell to skip a redshirt year if he impresses.

Depth Chart

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
CB 1 Matt Harris Montre Hartage Alonzo Mayo
CB 2 Keith Watkins Trae Williams Roderick Campbell

Harris and Watkins are sure things. Behind them, it's seemingly a three-way battle between Hartage, Wiliams, and Mayo, though Campbell could also play a role if he impresses. In fact, the backup spots really seem open to anyone; last year Hartage bypassed redshirting despite being one of the lowest-rated recruits in the class. In all likelihood, however, it'll go to one of the three guys who already have been in the program; who that is, we don't quite know yet.