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2019 Northwestern football position reviews: Cornerbacks

Montre Hartage’s departure and Greg Newsome II’s injury left holes that the ‘Cats struggled to fill.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year.

The cornerbacks were certainly impressive at times this season, but too often, pass coverage was lacking, especially after Greg Newsome II’s season-ending injury. Undeniably, Matt McPherson’s secondary has a long way to go to get back to the success they’ve enjoyed in years past, and that starts with the guys on the outside.

Overall Grade: B-

Without Newsome, this grade would be considerably lower. The group fell apart against Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota with him out, and had difficult stretches in earlier games even with him still in. There are certainly things for the cornerbacks to build off of, and they are not, of course, fully responsible for impressive passing performances, but the group needed to be better than they were this season, even with Montre Hartage having graduated.

Player Grades:

Greg Newsome II: A-

Stats: 36 TKLs, 0.5 TFLs, 11 PBU, FR

Before he went down in Bloomington, Newsome was quietly putting together an All-Big Ten caliber season. The true sophomore suffered a few lapses in coverage, but largely, he was left alone on the outside and fared quite well.

He was first in the Big Ten and top-ten nationwide in pass breakups before going down against the Hoosiers, and the pass defense’s struggles immediately after his injury tell a large part of the story of his season as well. Newsome is a legitimate #1 Big Ten corner, and if he continues on his current trajectory, could well become a star.

Trae Williams: C+

Stats: 18 TKLs, 5 PBU

It’s tough to judge the senior captain too harshly, as he was dealing with his own injuries throughout the season, limiting both his playing time and effectiveness. Williams only ended up appearing in nine games, and was clearly bothered for much of the season by the lower-body ailment.

Still, though he had his moments in coverage, Williams struggled considerably on the outside, and when he moved into the slot against Minnesota, things went poorly. Against other teams with fewer weapons, the Ohio native was a valuable asset in slot coverage, and often looked at least passable on the outside as well.

He certainly wasn’t the number one thing wrong with this position group, but Williams committed a few more penalties than one would like (not the last time you’ll hear that) and missed a few crucial tackles, most notably allowing Ihmir Smith-Marsette to turn a 15-yard gain into a 50-yard touchdown against Iowa. Regardless, the veteran leaves a hole that must be filled.

Cam Ruiz: C-

Stats: 44 TKLs, 3 TFLs, INT, FF, QBH, 6 PBU

The numbers certainly don’t look bad for the sophomore corner, who was undeniably impressive at times as a blitzer and run defender. However, as per usual, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Ruiz, who ended up seeing the most playing time out of any single corner due to injuries, was undeniably the weak link in outside coverage this season.

His year-long struggles were highlighted by a two-game stretch against Purdue and Indiana in which he committed no fewer than five pass interference penalties, including effectively the game-loser against the Boilermakers on a late fourth down in which he tackled the intended receiver.

Ruiz has the speed of a top corner, and occasionally even shows instincts to that effect. But too often, he just doesn’t get his head around, resulting in easy penalties that keep drives alive. Without a big offseason, Ruiz, or whoever ends up at the second corner spot, will be a significant question mark for a Wildcat team that can’t afford many of those.

A.J. Hampton: B

Stats: 15 TKLs, INT, PBU

Of everybody at the corner position, Hampton undeniably showed the most growth over the course of 2019. Starting the year, the redshirt first year looked close to unplayable out of the slot, getting beat with consistency and displaying poor coverage instincts.

But Hampton absolutely turned things around down the stretch, getting enough experience as the nickel back to cement himself as a viable option over there as the ‘Cats move forward. Hopefully, he continues to become a much-needed success story for McPherson’s group.

Rod Cambell: Incomplete

The imminent grad transfer appeared sparingly in ten games, but didn’t make enough of an impact to warrant a grade.