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Analyzing Trae Williams’ debut at cornerback

The rookie cornerback had an interesting debut.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It had been two years since Trae Williams last started in a competitive football game. Prior to his first play against Duke on Saturday, Trae Williams last opening snap took place in his high school state championship game. He was nervous.

“First play, I got up there, I couldn’t hear anything. Godwin was giving me the call and I could just see his lips moving. Couldn’t hear anything. I’m looking around, stuff’s going in slow motion. I was like, alright, just gotta last through this first play.”

Despite Williams’ inexperience, he did enough against Duke to earn his place on the starting roster in place of the injured Matt Harris. After an 0-2 start, Northwestern needed a player to step up and Williams, a redshirt freshman making his first career start, had to be that guy.

Pat Fitzgerald named Williams defensive player of the week. Fitzgerald said Williams was targeted 11 times over the course of the game and won 10 of the battles. However, that could just be motivational coach-speak. Let’s examine the tape and the box score to see what really happened.

Williams racked up 2 pass breakups and 7 solo tackles. Against a secondary without Kyle Queiro, Keith Watkins and Harris, Duke could only manage 5.69 yards per attempt through the air. Williams was matched up against T.J. Rahming for much of the game. On the box score, Williams held Rahming to 8 receptions for 70 yards. Before we go into more numbers, I found a statistical error.

This play is listed incorrectly. Rahming did not catch this ball. Anthony Nash did.


So, Rahming did not actually catch 8 passes for 70 yards. He caught 7 passes for 63 yards. Another one of his “catches” was a -6 yard pitch play in the backfield that got stuffed (don’t run trick plays, folks). Another 16-yard catch came in garbage time.

I’m not going to count those. For the important parts of the game that actually happened, Williams held Rahming to a respectable 5 receptions for 53 yards. For a redshirt freshman starting his first game against a second-year receiver, that’ll do just fine.

As a group, Northwestern’s secondary worked very hard to prevent Duke from making big plays down the sidelines.

“We’re always in the secondary thinking deep-to-short first,” Williams said in Monday’s press conference. “Five yard gains are not gonna kill us.”

But that didn’t stop Duke from trying anyway. Williams responded with stellar downfield coverage. When Duke beat Northwestern, it used the middle of the field. While those are still big plays, Duke was unable to cash in on the rookie cornerback over the top.

Things were looking good for Trae through the first quarter, but he had a disappointing series when Duke opened up the second quarter and drove 99 yards down the field. On the first play of the drive, Rahming made his first catch of the game on a short stick route. While it was only a 5 yard gain, Duke was committing to settling for underneath routes to set up the big play. Then, a few plays later, Duke found an open receiver down the middle of the field and Daniel Jones hit Shaun Wilson for 39 yards.

Turns out five yard gains can kill you, eventually.

Throughout the game, Williams gave Rahming plenty of cushion and it burned him on this drive. I don’t really know why Williams wasn’t playing Rahming closer to the line of scrimmage, but I suspect he was trying to avoid big plays and the coaches told him to rely on Northwestern’s elite linebacking corps to swallow up short passes.

This huge 10-yard reception on third down was definitely Williams’ worst moment of the game. Williams just didn’t do enough on the coverage and allowed Rahming to get underneath for the third time on the drive.

At this point, it seemed like Duke had found Northwestern’s weakness. If the Blue Devils couldn’t beat Northwestern down the field, it could just work Hartage, Williams, Jared McGee and others on short passes. On the next drive, Rahming had another 9 yard catch. Duke’s Ehrich Schneider made a 5-yard catch on fourth down. Luckily, Anthony Walker halted Duke with a strip sack fumble, letting the entire defense off the hook.

After another 9-yard completion to Rahming on the exact same play Duke ran earlier, Northwestern gave up trying to be “cute” with its coverages. Northwestern couldn’t afford to protect the inexperienced Williams on every play.

Northwestern had to stop Duke’s short passing game and trust Williams to play tighter coverage at the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Williams was stapled next to Duke’s erstwhile possession receiver. It’s highly likely that Williams was just sick of getting beaten, so he changed up the play. After all, the other two defensive backs are giving large amounts of room to the Duke receivers, as previously planned.

Northwestern’s defense went with it. For all the team’s faults, Northwestern’s players do a good job of adjusting defenses on the fly. It took two offensive drives for Williams to realize his pregame strategy was faulty, and the players took action. He didn’t play tighter coverage for the rest of the game, but he stopped exclusively sitting back and waiting for Rahming to come at him. If he did, the linebackers or safeties were finally called in to help. That made a big difference.

On the next play, Williams gave Rahming room yet again, but it was a trap. Nate Hall jumped the route and forced an incompletion. Duke would get one more first down on Hartage’s side. Duke then took a sack and failed to get a first down for the next five drives.

Remember when Williams gave a receiver five yards of space on third down?

Neither does he.

However, Williams certainly wasn’t perfect for the rest of the game. While he adjusted to Rahming’s movements and change his style, he did lose touch with the reason he was in such conservative coverages to begin with.

Yeah, Williams gets absolutely burned on this play but Duke’s QB just misses the receiver. That cannot happen against Nebraska. Tommy Armstrong doesn’t have a great deep ball, but he’s good enough to make that easy throw in his sleep. If Williams is going to succeed against Nebraska, he’s going to have to not get wrong-footed and keep up with guys like Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore.

On this play, Williams is lined up back in a more conservative position and gives Rahming plenty of time to get open down the field. Northwestern was up 10 and playing prevent defense at this point, but that’s still not great.

But it appears that teams can’t just overlook Williams and take advantage of his inexperience. That’s what Duke tried to do, and it backfired in the second half. In fact, you could argue that Northwestern’s coaching staff overlooked how well Williams could play. It’s clear that Northwestern’s defensive staff was worried that he couldn’t cover players one-on-one. But when he finally got the opportunity, he looked fine:

Williams looked better on that play than most of the few redshirt freshman cornerbacks in the country. He plays the route perfectly and turns around well before Jones throws the ball. Overall, for his first game since high school, he acquitted himself with something approaching veteran expertise. Even when Williams was beaten, he didn’t miss reads or ignore assignments. He didn’t look frequently confused or unprepared. While he doesn’t have the strength or presence of someone like Nick VanHoose or Matt Harris yet, he still has just enough talent and skill to do a good job.

Jared McGee lauded Williams in Monday’s press conference:

“I couldn’t have been more happy, more proud to work with him (Trae Williams) out there on the corner...When you have a corner out there who’s able to make the calls before you even give him the coverage, its always a plus.”

Whether Williams can continue to survive his trial by fire remains to be seen after just one game. Tommy Armstrong is going to after him repeatedly this Saturday. While Williams showed long stretches of good play against Duke, it could all fall apart in a flash when dealing with Nebraska’s offense. This Nebraska receiving corps is among the best in team history, and players like Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore will be gunning for Williams. Northwestern will need its reigning defensive player of the week to stay on his game.