Montre Hartage might be the best coverage cornerback in the Big Ten - and practically no one is talking about it.
Coming into the year, Hartage appeared on the radar for some as a result of his outstanding play since the 2016 season. When targeted, Hartage had the third lowest passer rating of all defensive backs over the previous two seasons, with current-Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick being the only player in a Power 5 conference ranked ahead of him.
Also ranking first among return Big Ten corners in plays on the ball with 10 last season, Hartage has been a standout defensive back for Northwestern for years. Still, the former-two-star recruit is largely being overlooked yet again.
Hartage’s elite play probably doesn’t get the attention that it deserves as a result of him playing for a defense that ranks No. 73 in the country in total passing yards allowed, and for a program that isn’t always in the national spotlight. Regardless of the success of his defensive unit as a whole, Hartage has continued to shine individually and build upon his performances as a sophomore and junior.
Improving significantly upon his Pro Football Focus rating of 70.3 (an all-encompassing metric used to measure individual player performance) from a season ago, Hartage has even further established himself amongst the nation’s elite. Through the first nine weeks of the year, PFF rated Hartage as the top corner in the Big Ten.
His ball skills, physicality, size, and discipline in coverage give him arguably the best pro potential of anyone on the roster. The main knocks on him are his straight line speed and tackling ability, though he isn’t always asked to tackle much.
While his individual play may not be enough to win football games by itself, it certainly will get him looks at the next level. He puts opposing receivers on an island, and we have the film to prove it.
Locking up in man-to-man
Perhaps the most impressive part of Hartage’s game is his ability to lock up the opposing team’s best receiver in a one-on-one matchup on the outside. Fitzgerald has shown extreme confidence in Hartage’s man-to-man coverage, often allowing him to line up across top receivers with minimal help over the top.
Hartage’s ability to stick with his man and play the ball at an elite level on almost any route (deep balls, comebacks, outs, ins, etc.) allows the defense to use its 11 men more effectively; Northwestern can devote less resources to Hartage’s side of the field and instead shore up other weaknesses in the defense.
We’ll start out with Hartage isolated in man-coverage on the outside:
Hartage is at the top of the screen lined up across Michigan State’s top receiver Felton Davis III. Per usual, Hartage spent most of the game lined up opposite the talented 6-foot-four-inch wide out, and rarely did he disappoint.
Here, Hartage ensures that Davis isn’t able to beat him deep before timing his break on the ball perfectly and stepping into the passing line as the ball arrives. The throw isn’t great, so Hartage isn’t given the pass deflection stat, but he still plays the out route perfectly and would have been there for the break up should the ball have been more accurate.
Here’s another clip of Hartage being isolated on the outside with no safety help over the top:
He doesn’t bite on the receiver’s stutter step release because he knows he can’t afford to get beat deep. He’s confident enough to press the receiver, and he uses his body to not let his man get position inside him, before making a solid play on the ball. This is a difficult route to cover with no help, but Hartage makes it look easy.
Hartage’s prowess on the outside was on display throughout the Wisconsin game:
Hartage, at the top of the screen, displays one of the more valuable traits a corner can have: the ability to turn the hips quickly.
He begins the play with his hips turned away from the sideline, expecting the receiver to run a route towards the inside of the field. When the receiver cuts his route back outside, Hartage swivels his hips beautifully, staying stride for stride with the wide out.
Hartage continued to show his versatility in defending the route tree later against Wisconsin:
Here, Hartage is all over the slant pattern sophomore receiver Danny Davis III runs on the bottom of the screen. He sits on the receiver’s right shoulder, waiting for Davis to make his break. As soon as Davis plants his foot and cuts to the middle of the field, Hartage pounces and gets underneath the receiver, effectively taking away the passing lane.
Whether its a slant, an out or a deep ball, Hartage has shown that he can consistently stick with his receiver on an island.
Fitz runs mostly man in the secondary, so we understand that a lot of these clips are applicable to the section above.
But what separates Hartage from other corners is not only his ability to stay with a receiver, but also to make a play on the ball (as seen by his Big Ten-best 10 plays on the ball last year).
Here’s another clip of great coverage on Michigan State’s Felton Davis:
Defending an in route this time, Hartage times his break on the ball perfectly to break up the pass.
He doesn’t make contact with Davis too early, and instead gets his hand in there at the perfect time. Just as the ball arrives in the receiver’s hands, Hartage steps underneath and breaks the pass up, almost leading to a tipped-ball interception.
We’ll move away from man coverage for a second to look at a nice zone pass break up:
Hartage is responsible for the deep zone on the top side of the field. Even as quarterback Brian Lewerke scrambles to the opposite side of the field, Hartage stays disciplined and locks down his zone.
He plays the receiver physically but doesn’t interfere enough to have a penalty called against him. He times his jump well and positions himself in a way that doesn’t allow the receiver to make a contested catch, ensuring an incompletion.
Here is his lone interception of the season:
The quarterback makes a terrible decision, but a pick is a pick. Hartage is put in a tough spot here as he has to guard two defenders at once. He does a nice job of keeping them both in front of him. He bates the quarterback into making the throw by leaving a little cushion between him and the receiver and then breaks on the ball once it’s released.
Let’s take a look at him playing a comeback route perfectly:
Hartage covers the deep ball extremely well, and we easily could have included two more examples from the Wisconsin game alone of him knocking down balls in one-on-one coverage 25+ yards down the field.
But what makes Hartage such a reliable option on the outside is his ability to defend the entire route tree. Here, Davis makes his initial release to the outside of the field, signaling that he might be running a streak. Instead, Davis comes back to the ball near the line to gain, but Hartage isn’t fooled.
It’s rather difficult to take away both the deep ball and the comeback/curl, but Hartage has proved proficient in defending either route. He stops on a dime and steps in front of Davis in time to knock the ball down.
Things to improve
Hartage is, of course, not without flaws. One of the main knocks on Hartage is his tackling ability.
“He can negate good habits playing the run by being [passive] in challenging both ball carriers and blockers in space,” thedraftnetwork.com said.
Here is a clip from the Purdue game that illustrates this point:
He does a nice job of reading the screen and coming up to make the tackle. However, watch how he stops his feet at the point of attack and catches the receiver. He winds up making the tackle, but that won’t work at the next level. By not running through the receiver he also gives up a couple unnecessary yards.
It may have worked against Purdue, but he would get run over in the same situation in the NFL.
In another play against Michigan State’s Davis, Hartage gets beat in coverage and then whiffs on the tackle:
Hartage loses contact with Davis on the in route. That happens — he can’t be expected to lock his receiver down on every play.
The larger problem is the failed tackle attempt. As discussed earlier, Hartage doesn’t get many opportunities to make open field tackles, but he has to wrap up Davis here. Instead, the receiver bounces away from Hartage’s hit and extends the play for a few more yards after the catch.
Part of the reason Hartage is flying under the radar is because he’s simply doing his job by locking up opposing receivers. If the coverage is good enough, the ball probably won’t get thrown his way.
Hartage is far from a finished product, but his ability to cover and his knack for making a play on the ball will give him a shot at the next level. Sure, he needs to shore up his open field tackling, and yes, he’s beat in coverage from time to time, but there’s no other way of putting it: Hartage has been a stud this season for Northwestern’s defense.