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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Cornerback

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There are some players coming back, but this position is no sure thing.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For the second part of our 2018 Summer Guide, we move onto position previews. For each position, we’ll outline personnel, key players, and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.

The cornerbacks are next up.

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): Montre Hartage (26) Trae Williams (14), Alonzo Mayo (5)

Key losses: Marcus McShepard (six career starts, 62 tackles, eight passes defensed)

Other returners: Roderick Campbell (Jr.), Cameron Ruiz (R-Fr.), Brian Bullock (So.)

Newcomers: Greg Newsome (Early-enrollee, Fr.), A.J. Hampton (Fr.)

No position group was as ravaged by injuries last season as the cornerbacks. Keith Watkins II was supposed to be a high-end starter, and he missed the whole season after suffering an injury in summer practice. Brian Bullock went down Week One and missed the rest of the season, and Roderick Campbell missed the entire season after suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason. Trae Williams missed time too, leaving the cupboard mostly barren. The constant was always Montre Hartage, who proved again to be one of the better cover-men in the conference. Often left on an island, Hartage did a good job challenging some of the talented receivers Northwestern faced.

There will likely still be depth issues at cornerback if opponents spread the field with four and five wideouts, but, at least at the outset, Northwestern is in better shape at corner than it was last season (if healthy). If one of the younger corners can join Hartage and Williams as a reliable player, it will give Mike Hankwitz a major boost.

Key player:

Greg Newsome II

True freshmen aren’t often major contributors in college football, but Newsome has a chance to make a real impact next season. As far as incoming first-years go, Newsome will be as prepared as any. The Illinois native spent his senior year of high school at IMG Academy in Florida, and enrolled early this past winter. When asked if he intended to redshirt, Newsome made it clear he wants to play right away. Given the opening that exists at the nickel spot, and potentially the second starter spot across from Montre Hartage, Newsome should see snaps.

At 6-foot-1, Newsome has strong size for a corner, and he’s a fluid athlete. He’s as talented a recruit Fitzgerald has had at the position in a while, and should have an opportunity to have a role from the get-go.

Big question:

Does a second corner emerge?

It’s not as if Hartage doesn’t get beat, but he’s pretty much a sure thing if healthy. He’s darn close to a shut-down corner, and he’ll at least be above-average. A bigger question is whether someone steps up as the second starter alongside him.

Trae Williams is the favorite, and has experience. He’s made big plays (a game-saving interception at Iowa), but he’s also been burned deep relatively often (the Duke debacle last season). He missed the beginning of last season with injury, so you wonder if he was truly healthy. With another offseason under his belt, it would be a surprise if he isn’t the Week One starter. Alonzo Mayo has also played and starter, but that was more out of necessity than anything else. He’s really struggled in extended stretches, so he’d have to show significant improvement to jump Williams as the second starter.

As mentioned above, Newsome is another candidate. Campbell, Bullock and Cameron Ruiz are wild cards because they haven’t played at all. It would be nice if any of them could get into some kind of rhythm and crack the lineup this season. At the very least, solid play from any of them would help bring depth — maybe even competitive depth, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to say — to the position group.

Longtime defensive backs coach Jerry Brown retired after last season, so former running backs coach Matt MacPherson will coach the defensive backs this season. It’s unclear whether MacPherson will teach new techniques or try to implement different principles for the corners, but it’s something to think about.

Depth chart:

CB Depth

Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
CB #1 Montre Hartage Alonzo Mayo Roderick Campbell
CB #2 Trae Williams Brian Bullock Greg Newsome