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Northwestern football’s important players — No. 3: Montre Hartage

How will the loss of Northwestern’s starting safeties affect the production of their top corner?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2018. 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.

Montre Hartage slots in at No. 3.

Noah Coffman (Rank: NR):

Look, I understand I’m wildly off the mean here. And I do expect Hartage to be a relatively important player this coming year — he barely missed my list. But I just don’t expect his responsibilities or output to change all that much, mainly because of the way Northwestern handles its cornerbacks. To me, the front seven and the safeties all have a greater effect on the game than corners in the predominant defensive scheme of the Wildcats.

For starters, Northwestern cornerbacks have virtually no effect on the run game. This holds true for most programs, but the Wildcats tend to exacerbate it by virtually never bringing run blitzes that involve their top two corners, preferring to leave their cover men on the outside at all times. As a result, Northwestern corners combined for just four of the team’s 110 run stuffs in 2017 — rush defense, the Wildcats’ biggest advantage last year, had virtually no correlation with the play of Hartage and his position mates.

The above is why I think corners as a whole hold slightly diminished importance within Northwestern’s scheme. But even focusing on pass coverage, which arguably holds much more importance than its counterpart anyways, I don’t see a ton of new significance in Hartage’s responsibilities for this season. The senior will almost certainly reprise his role as Northwestern’s lead corner. Last season he was fine. There aren’t a lot of ways to really isolate a college cornerback’s pass coverage, but from Pro Football Focus’ mediocre 70.3 overall grade and the eye test, Hartage seemed to struggle against top Big Ten receivers by DJ Moore, while excelling as a sure open-field tackler and submitting decent performances against most other wide receiver corps.

That didn’t hurt Northwestern last year, and while it might be harder for the defense to swallow iffy corner play with younger safeties in the defensive backfield, there isn't a ton to suggest potential for significant improvement from Hartage. The few flashes of brilliance he showed last year came against markedly worse receivers, like that of Purdue, and the best parts of his game, like the tackling, don’t come with a ton of room for improvement. Essentially, I think the comportment of the new starting safeties along with the level of pressure from the front seven are much more subject to change than Hartage’s play, and will more likely determine Northwestern’s defensive success.

Graham Brennan (Rank: 3):

Have you seen the Pro Football Focus tweet of the 5 lowest passer ratings when targeted for all defensive backs since 2016? Two quick things: the stat is since 2016, so it encompasses the past two seasons, and it’s among all secondary members, so it includes safeties.

Montre Hartage is 3rd on the list, with a passer rating against of 61.0. Considering Hartage has been Northwestern’s number one corner since the third game of 2016, when Matthew Harris retired due to medical reasons, that is an especially impressive statistic.

It’s also worth noting that three of the players in the top 5, Clifton Duck (Appalachian St.), Shamad Lomax (New Mexico St.) and Blaise Taylor (Arkansas St.), play (or played) in non-Power 5 conferences.

The only Power-5 defensive back with a lower passer rating against is Minkah Fitzpatrick, an All-American who was widely regarded as the best safety in college football. Fitzpatrick won a national championship in January before becoming the 11th pick in April’s NFL draft. He will start for the Miami Dolphins in 2018. Again, he was the only Power Five defensive back better than Hartage against the pass the past couple seasons. Think about that.

Hartage also recorded 10 plays on the ball a season ago, tops among returning Big Ten CBs.

He can evidently play.

For any of you who dislike or don’t trust advanced analytics, Hartage had five interceptions in 2016 before quarterbacks stopped throwing at him.

Northwestern’s 2018 front seven looks formidable. It returns two All-Big Ten teamers and one Freshman All-American. But the secondary lost Igwebuike and Quiero. It will be inexperienced and put to the test throughout the season.

For that reason, it’s extremely “important” that Hartage continues his stellar play in 2018.