When watching a defense play, most fans’ attention goes to pass-rushers bending around the edge to pursue the quarterback, linebackers roaming from sideline to sideline and cornerbacks tasked with mirroring track-speed receivers down the field. But, one of the biggest X-factors in determining the course of a game very well may be a slot cornerback.
Whether through bone-crushing hits, impressive open-field tackles or sound coverage, Northwestern’s Rod Heard II has proven his mettle over the course of his Wildcat career. In the last two years, Heard has been a do-it-all player for NU, having played 1,127 snaps and posting 66 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for loss, an interception, two forced fumbles and four pass breakups.
Now in his redshirt senior season, Heard has posted the highest Pro Football Focus grade (71.5) not just of his career, but also among Wildcat defenders. He credits experience and learning an appropriate play speed as a catalyst for growth.
“I think I’ve just been able to become just way more comfortable out there,” Heard said after Tuesday’s practice. “When you’re younger, the game is a little bit faster. But so far this season, it’s been pretty slow. I’ve been able to just play with a different level of level-headedness and be able to be as efficient as possible.”
Ironically enough, the job of a slot cornerback may be anything but lax. Such players are responsible to make decisions in milliseconds and carry a myriad of feathers in their caps, from helping in run support to blitzing to following shifty receivers; specifically, Heard noted that he especially relishes locking down players in coverage. Altogether, Heard feels strongly that those at his position are imperative to defenses.
“It’s a niche position. Not a lot of people are able to have all of those skillsets in one player,” Heard said. “There’s a lot of guys that can cover, or they’re mainly run-stoppers, but having a player that can do everything and being able to move them around. I think it’s an invaluable player to have on a defense.”
Heard has certainly been assigned a multitude of roles in David Braun’s new scheme despite a more constrained on-field alignment. This year, 73.8% of Heard’s snaps have come in the slot; last year, the Michigan native saw 46.8% of snaps inside and 41.7% come in the box, per Pro Football Focus. That adjustment is one that extends from Braun “being able to get guys in positions to make plays,” as the DB posited.
“There’s definitely some transfer, some carryover from some previous defenses, but I think he’s done a great job at incorporating all the things that we already were doing here and pretty successful at,” Heard said. “And then, [Braun] incorporated his new style of defense, which got more eyes on the ball, and allows players to play more free and more aggressive.”
Although Braun began the 2023 calendar year as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator, his role has magnified enormously after his transition to interim head coach on July 10. Having now played under Braun as a head coach for six games, Heard praised Braun and his leadership style.
“I think he’s done a great job at navigating that transition,” Heard said. “Being a players’ coach; making sure that everything he does is for the best interests of the players and our overall team success. I think as a leader, he’s been able to galvanize the team and to propel us through his speeches and some of the different challenges he gives us — to make us better players and better people and be in the right space in order to go out there on Saturdays and be the team that we want to be.”
In addition to being under the guidance of a new DC, Heard is most closely overseen by newcomer LaMarcus Hicks, in his first year as NU’s cornerbacks coach. The redshirt senior noted impactful physical and mental communication from Hicks, noting he’s “brought great energy to the program.”
“I think he’s done a great job with the corners,” Heard remarked. “Bringing in some technique. Being able to translate the different techniques and the mentality — the mindset — that you have to have playing corner.”
Thus far, Northwestern’s defense is surrendering 27.3 points per game, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten and is an improvement of just one point relative to 2022. Part of continued defensive struggles is an inability to collect takeaways: the ‘Cats have just three forced turnovers on D, and all were against the UTEP Miners on Sept. 9. Heard stressed that despite some missed opportunities so far in 2023, he and his teammates understand the significance of returning the ball to NU’s offense.
“Having takeaways is key to our success moving forward,” Heard said. “For practice, having an extreme focus on making those plays. This practice, we had four interceptions. Being able to replicate how it’s supposed to look in the game in practice is key.
“Every single series we go out there, we talk about punching at the ball and finding ways to get the ball out. Keeping that a main focus, and always trying to grow in that aspect. We’ve got to manifest that on the field, but it’s going to happen.”
Now in his fifth season in Evanston, the remaining six games on Northwestern’s schedule may be the final in the career of Heard in purple and white. The cornerback hopes to demonstrate to NFL personnel not only his development, but also his versatility on a down-to-down basis.
“I just want to prove my ability to do all of the things that I already do at a high level, and being consistent at it,” Heard reflected. “During my time in this program, I’ve grown a lot; I’ve changed positions. Being able to take everything that I’ve learned, even just from the players that I played with previously. Using that to have the best performance that I can. That’s mainly just what I want to prove — that I am an NFL-level player, and that I can dominate in all aspects of my game.”