Following Northwestern’s 21-13 win over Nebraska on November 7, redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph walked off Ryan Field with his head hung low. He trudged through the tunnel toward the Buehler Sports Medicine Center when head coach Pat Fitzgerald approached him.
“Tell me how you played,” Fitz said to the young defensive back. “You look like you don’t think you played very well.”
“No, I didn’t play very well at all,” Joseph responded.
Joseph was visibly dissatisfied with a performance that included six total tackles and an interception of Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez in the end zone, which saved a touchdown that would have given Nebraska a late-game lead. For most players, it would have been a respectable performance, but for Joseph and the NU secondary, respectable is not good enough.
Despite an overall poor showing from Northwestern (3-9) in 2019, its defense was a rare bright spot. But the Wildcat defensive backs were far from satisfied with their play. In a defense that ranked 27th nationwide in efficiency, Pro Football Focus rated the group 54th overall in coverage against receivers. While it had made strides in terms of passing yards allowed and overall efficiency, turnovers became its kryptonite, especially when the team needed them most. It was limiting but not damaging.
“The one thing that was really lacking was our ability to take the ball away,” defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “I think that’s really where we started saying, ‘If we want to go from good to a championship level, then we have to have the mindset that just being in the right spot is not good enough.’”
The position group accounted for just three interceptions a year ago — one each from JR Pace, Cam Ruiz and AJ Hampton. The defense notched seven total picks on the year, with the linebackers responsible for the majority.
In January, coaches met with the defensive backs to discuss the necessary change. The consensus among players and staff was that three interceptions in 12 games was unacceptable, so they committed themselves to mentally and physically improving, which began in the eight spring practices before COVID hit. They implemented more ball drills to turn pass breakups into interceptions, but the most significant shift was in the players’ mindset and how they held one another to a new standard.
“You started hearing from the sideline other DBs saying, ‘That’s not okay. You need to catch that. That ball needs to be ours,’” MacPherson said. “Before I could even get anything out of my mouth, they were the ones taking control of holding each other accountable...They put the pressure on themselves to make plays and not just be in the right spot and do the right thing, but to become playmakers.”
After a challenging offseason characterized by hard work as well as disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic, MacPherson’s squad faced more adversity heading into 2020. Starting corner Trae Williams graduated, and senior safety Travis Whillock opted out of the season during the summer. Star cornerback Greg Newsome II was ruled out of the first matchup against Maryland with an injury, leaving the fate of the secondary in younger, less experienced hands. Depth and maturity became a concern, not only for reaching their takeaway goal, but for overall coverage.
Of any group on Northwestern’s roster, though, the secondary understood the “next man up” mentality best and delivered despite its challenges.
After six games, the DBs rank fourth in the nation in defensive coverage against receivers, according to PFF. Opposing receivers have caught just 57% of passes against NU’s defense, a significant improvement from last year’s 65%, and the secondary has allowed only six touchdowns this year compared to last year’s 15. Two of those six have come on coverage busts from Ruiz in recent weeks, and neither Joseph nor Newsome has sacrificed a score all season.
Eight different Wildcats have notched 12 total interceptions, with nine coming from the defensive backs. Joseph leads the Wildcats with five after recording two multi-interception games against Iowa and Wisconsin. Pace, Coco Azema, Hampton and Newsome all have one to their names as well. After charting just three takeaways last year, the unit logged three-pick performances this season against both Maryland and Wisconsin and has tripled its total in half as many games.
Coming out hot in the first matchup with the Terrapins, Northwestern’s Sky Team continued to emphasize interceptions in the early weeks of the season by creating the “Pick Club” — a coveted group each defender hopes to join at some point this season.
“It started the first game when we were picking everybody off,” Newsome said. “But it really started after last season after we started emphasizing picks, picks, picks as something we had to improve on, and I think we’re doing a great job right now.”
The DBs have shown a level of play that has been long desired. With what appeared to be an inexperienced group that went through growing pains last year, MacPherson, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and former running back-turned coach Jeremy Larkin transformed the defensive backs into arguably the deepest room on the roster.
The depth in the group starts with the cornerbacks, as four different players vie for the two starting spots. Newsome has solidified himself as the leader in the group with Ruiz, Hampton and Rod Heard sharing time across from him. Joseph and Pace command the snaps at safety, but redshirt freshman Cameron Mitchell has quietly appeared in five games this season. He’s often out there when the ‘Cats play nickel (five DBs) on third downs.
Pace, the lone senior, has captained the way and steadied younger players, according to MacPherson. The Atlanta native is responsible for a lot of the out-of-practice teaching and camaraderie, serving as the glue for the group while continually making an impact on the field as Northwestern’s fifth leading tackler behind the linebackers and Joseph.
Newsome, while one year younger than Pace, is the ultimate leader on the field with his lights-out coverage against some of the conference’s top receivers. He’s logged seven pass breakups on the year and has allowed quarterbacks to complete just 35% of attempts thrown his way. Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi was 0-for-5 when targeting the junior corner, and Newsome held All-American Purdue wide receiver David Bell to just 78 yards, which was the first time Bell recorded fewer than 100 yards in five games and his only scoreless performance all year.
Alongside Ruiz, Fitz said the three are largely responsible for the success of the Sky Team.
“JR is a senior leader back there, a captain for us,” he said. “Greg is showing that he’s an All-Big Ten and beyond-type shutdown corner. Cam Ruiz is getting better with each rep, and quite frankly, he’s really hard on himself. I think he’s learning how to deal with the momentary failures that happen back there on the back end.”
Even when Ruiz has struggled in recent weeks, he has picked himself up, like with a crucial fourth-quarter sack against Wisconsin when the Badgers went for it on fourth-and-six from the NU 23-yard line. The Wildcats have also flexed their depth by rolling out other corners in crucial situations such as Hampton, who stepped in for Ruiz in the second half against Michigan State and recorded four total tackles and one tackle for loss.
On the other end of the spectrum, the young guns have jumpstarted this secondary with necessary energy. Redshirt freshmen Joseph, Heard, Azema and Mitchell as well as the sophomore Hampton have all gotten into the action and been difference-makers as they indicate a new wave for NU’s secondary in years to come.
In a group that is all too familiar with the next-man-up mentality due to consistent injuries over the past few years, MacPherson’s teaching style emphasizes keeping all players in the group prepared for their numbers to be called, which leads to early success for his younger guys. That philosophy and the work both last season and in the offseason ultimately created Northwestern’s next big defensive star in Joseph.
After appearing in just four games in his true freshman season, Joseph turned into a star overnight. After Whillock opted out, the College Station, Texas, product appeared atop the Week One depth chart and brought a spark that revolutionized the unit. Leading the nation with five interceptions on the year, Joseph has twice earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors and was named Jim Thorpe Award Player of the Week, an honor bestowed to the nation’s best defensive back. He was recently added to the FWAA Freshman All-American Watchlist as well.
“He’s a young man who we thought could have the opportunity to be an instant impact player, and his performance has demonstrated that,” Fitz said. “Mike Bajakian was at one of our spring practices, and he didn’t know anybody’s name. He was like, ‘Who’s 16? That guy’s pretty good. Do you think he can play on offense?’ For an independent person who hadn’t been around our program to be able to say that is indicative of Brandon’s first few weeks and offseason.”
Alongside his fellow young stars, including Heard, who has become a consistent contributor as well, the secondary’s future looks bright. The combination of youth and maturity leads to a lively and impactful group dynamic, characterized by both composure and enthusiasm that create an elite level of play. And in a season with no fans and such unique playing conditions, the group has had to find that enthusiasm within.
“To be a defensive back, you always have a lot of confidence in yourself,” MacPherson said. “You always play with a chip on your shoulder. Greg probably has the most confidence and has the biggest chip. The other guys feed off of that, knowing that there’s a guy there who’s going to be able to compete with anybody.”
Newsome, however, attributes their energy on the field to their camaraderie off the field.
“We’re together all the time,” he said. “We spend most of our time together. We hang out all the time...The passion that we’re playing with, we’re playing for each other. It’s infectious.”
“I think we have one of the tightest DB rooms in the nation,” Joseph said, echoing Newsome. “We’re all boys. We all love each other, and we’re all working for each other on the field. I think that chemistry off the field, we take that on the field, and every play, my corners know I’ve got their backs, and they know the safeties have theirs.”
As a defensive back, walking the line of playing with emotion is a challenge, but MacPherson says he believes his room has found a balance between celebrating its wins, acknowledging its mistakes and refocusing, no matter the outcome of the last play.
In the matchup with Purdue, NU allowed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Miller near the end of the first half that tied the game at 10. The defense then responded by forcing three straight punts and a fumble, allowing the Wildcats to gain a two-touchdown lead. The next week against Wisconsin, after sacrificing a 49-yard touchdown to Chimere Dike, the secondary did not allow another score for the remainder of the game, limited the Badgers to just three pass plays of 15+ yards and hauling in three interceptions. Most recently at Michigan State, following the 75-yard Jalen Nailor touchdown five minutes in, NU gave up only 92 passing yards for the rest of the game.
Its commitment to improving and desire to reach a championship level of play has allowed the secondary to make leaps and bounds in just six games. As the defense carries the Wildcats to likely their second Big Ten title game in three years, the defensive backs command attention and respect with their elite play after working so hard in the offseason to reach that point.
“They’re more willing to be coached,” MacPherson said. “They’re more willing to hold each other accountable, because once you start talking about everything through a championship lens, the stakes get a little bit higher and the expectations get a little bit higher.”