To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
Next up we have cornerback Montre Hartage
Ian McCafferty (Hartage rank: 7): Northwestern’s pass defense was hit or miss last year. The Sky Team was 106th in the nation in yards allowed, as opposing quarterbacks averaged 264.9 yards per game, but the team buckled down when it mattered, only giving up 11 touchdowns through the air. The lack of scoring helps account for Northwestern’s 49th-placed S&P+ ranking. The defense was also pretty opportunistic, snagging 13 interceptions. Still, the defense was far from foolproof, as the Michigan St. and Nebraska games showed.
Much of these struggles came from the revolving door at cornerback, as Matthew Harris had to retire and Keith Watkins II missed the season due to injury. This meant that young guys like Montre Hartage and Trae Williams had to undergo a baptism by fire from the get go. Hartage was one of the biggest surprises of the season and by far the team’s best cornerback. He started all 13 games (which is impressive for a Northwestern cornerback the last few years), led the team with 5 interceptions and 9 pass break ups, and was fifth on the team in tackles with 60. All of that garnered him an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten recognition.
Anyway, I think he’s really good and will only be better in 2017.
Hartage is important because he’s the team’s best cornerback, and at this point their only sure thing at the position. Great defenses don’t need two shut-down corners, but they do need at least one and that’s what Hartage brings to the table. Hartage will have the chance to take on the other team’s best receiver every week and if he can go one-on-one, then that opens up a world of opportunity for Godwin Igwebuike elsewhere on the field.
Hartage may very well be the linchpin in the defense because he can shut down opposing receivers and dictate how the other team calls plays. If he struggles, Igwebuike will have to shift back and play more center field. If he excels, then Mike Hankwitz can call more blitzes and Igwebuike can prowl the the line of scrimmage. I think there’s an argument here that Hartage may be the most important part of Northwestern’s 2017 defense.
Caleb Friedman (Hartage rank: NR): Hartage had a breakout season in 2016, and should be better in his junior season with another year of experience under his belt. But when it comes to whose performance will be most impactful for Northwestern when it comes to wins and losses, I think Keith Watkins II is more important than Hartage.
There’s always a major unknown when a player comes off of a serious knee injury, so we don’t exactly know how Watkins will be after missing an entire season. But if Watkins can get back to the level he played at before his injury, Northwestern’s secondary suddenly becomes scary-good. With Trae Williams hurt at the beginning of the season, durability and dependability will be key for both players. Hartage isn’t coming off an injury like Watkins is, though making his performance more of a sure thing.
Watkins being good in 2017 will have a clearer correlation to the secondary being good. Hartage should be good next season, but finding another corner opposite him is paramount, and if it isn’t Watkins, Northwestern could be in some trouble. Losing Hartage to injury would probably mean more than losing Watkins to injury would, but I did my rankings assuming that all players that are currently healthy will stay that way. That’s almost certainly not going to happen, but if it does, the bigger question mark at corner -- Watkins — is more important.
Ian McCafferty: Watkins will be important as well, but I think he receives much of his importance from Hartage. If Hartage plays well, then teams will start trying to take shots agains the other corner, Watkins or whoever it winds up being. The other corner would wind up being the weak link the secondary, not necessarily a bad weak link, but still the target for opposing quarterbacks. That is all true. However, if Hartage plays poorly than suddenly a lot of that focus is gone.
However, if we’re working under the assumption that Hartage will be the lockdown corner he has a chance to be, even then the other corner will have plenty of safety help over the top and linebacker help in the flat. You can build a whole scheme around the fact that Hartage can take guys on the outside. That’s why he’s so important. If he can’t become a lockdown corner, then Northwestern’s pass defense may be in trouble in 2017.