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Purple roots: Former Wildcats at NFL Combine reflect on how Northwestern shaped them

Though they may be in different programs now, Brandon Joseph and Eku Leota will always remember the purple and white.

NFL: MAR 02 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern’s 2020 football team was memorable for more than just its Citrus Bowl victory and reaching as high as No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. It should come as little surprise to know that the Wildcats’ pool of talent from that roster has continued playing at a high level three years later, including the likes of Greg Newsome II and Earnest Brown IV in the NFL.

While Newsome II and Brown IV have reached the professional ranks, several current NU players are trying to do the same: impress teams throughout the NFL Draft process, which is largely oriented around the NFL Combine. Four athletes from the ‘Cats’ 2022 roster — Peter Skoronski, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Evan Hull and Cam Mitchell — are in the process of interviewing with squads, completing exercises such as the 40-yard dash and three-cone drill, being measured head-to-toe and answering questions from national media. At the same time, those four are not the only players in Indianapolis with links to the purple and white.

Though somewhat short-lived, Brandon Joseph’s two years with Northwestern were unforgettable. With that aforementioned 2020 team, Joseph burst onto the scene in his first year of college football, earning unanimous First Team All-American honors and even securing the Big Ten Freshman of the Year crown. Having played in the Big Ten Championship in 2020 in Lucas Oil Stadium — the venue where he corralled an indelible one-handed interception, which also serves as the host site of the Combine — it’s safe to say Joseph’s journey has come full circle.

“I love this stadium, man,” Joseph said in front of his podium in the Indiana Convention Center. “I just remember that game being a dogfight the whole entire time.”

In Joseph’s estimation, he and his NU teammates helped compose the best defense in the country in 2020, which he referred to as his “first true year playing college football.” Those memories and having his name engraved on Ryan Field will remain forever.

“I’m always gonna hold onto that,” Joseph said.

Although Joseph transferred to Notre Dame after only two campaign in Evanston, the safety believes that Northwestern molded him into the high caliber of player that pro teams are coveting.

“The Wildcat program made me exactly who I am,” Joseph said. “Notre Dame was able to finish off everything, but Northwestern, that’s my blood. That’s where I was at for the majority of my career, so I’ll never forget the blessings that I got from there.”

That profound connection to the ‘Cats is also one shared by former defensive lineman Eku Leota, who headed to Auburn after the 2020 campaign. Like Joseph, Leota credits Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern program for being a foundational step in his development and pursuit of a pro career.

“They set the foundation for me as a player. I owe them the world,” Leota said Wednesday morning.

Though Joseph spent 2022 in South Bend and Leota played in Auburn for two seasons, neither has lost touch with the teammates with which they shared the field during the 2020 campaign. Both mentioned they had reunited with former ‘Cats when they descended on Indianapolis.

“It’s exciting just seeing them and just sharing this experience with them,” Leota said. “We got a good group of ‘Cats here.”

That premise of camaraderie especially resonates with Joseph, as his fellow Sky Team member Mitchell is also performing drills and being interviewed.

“I saw them as soon as I got here,” Joseph said about fellow Wildcat products. “Me and him [Mitchell] came in together.” The safety also noted that it’s “been great” touching base with Skoronski and Adebawore.

Two years ago, Greg Newsome II became the first member of Wildcats’ vaunted 2020 secondary to be drafted, being selected by the Browns with the 26th overall pick in 2021. Joseph emphasized that he’s been connecting with the Cleveland corner to pick his brain about being a pro.

No matter that they no longer call Ryan Field and Northwestern’s facilities home, one thing is clear: both Joseph and Leota feel indebted to the Wildcat program, which helped blaze their paths to the NFL.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” Joseph said about Newsome’s success. “There’s a standard that we held ourselves to over there at Northwestern. For Greg to go out there on the Browns and perform the way he is, that’s exactly what we talked about our whole career.”