DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE PART 9: DEFENSIVE BACKS
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 8 players
2014: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B/B-
2015: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B/B-
2016: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B-/C+
2017: Cut Grade A- True Grade B/B-
This is arguably the trickiest position group to evaluate, for a couple of reasons.
First, across the windows in our model, the amount of cornerbacks and safeties on scholarship varied from 18 to 20 players. Even factoring in a nickelback, this blows away the amount of players needed to actually start or play at a given time. The reason for this disparity is that these scholarships are actually stocking two separate entities: The Secondary, and Special Teams units.
Second, there’s the cornerback/safety conundrum we talked about in the introduction. What we decided to do is lump everyone together for our grades, but discuss the positions individually.
When looking at the true grade, understand that we probably rounded up a little bit. There were a TON of Cs given out, and it’s tough to know what to do with those. This is clearly the one area where NU coaches are saying “You know what? This guy’s ceiling is probably special teams, but we need him to fill that spot, so he gets a scholarship.” We tried to account for that a little bit, but not TOO much, for a major reason: The better the secondary is, the better special teams will be. This is the massive hidden advantage that teams like Ohio State–which, at times this year, had as many as four 5-star cornerbacks NOT STARTING–have over everyone else. All of that recruiting talent may not make the starting lineup, but it’s certainly available on kick and punt units.
Northwestern doesn’t recruit like OSU, but the reality is absolutely the same. If, for example, you’d like to see a hot-shot reserve cornerback block a punt in a nationally televised game against Notre Dame, you need to recruit very well in the secondary.
NOW, with all of that out of the way:
We set a deep cut line here: 8 players. We figured NU needs 4 starters, plus a nickelback, plus guys to account for injuries across those 5 positions. If anything, we threw an extra guy above the cut-line, and you could read that as accounting for the value that a deep roster brings to special teams.
Let’s just get this out the way right here. Yes, the cut grade is awesome, and yes, that is all about Northwestern’s unreal recruiting and development of safeties. But here is a very important note to add: Safety is by far the position Northwestern RECRUITS most effectively. In other words, just about every guy crushing it back there from 2010-2017 was a major recruit.
Ibraheim Campbell picked NU over Stanford and Michigan State. Traveon Henry picked NU over Florida State. Godwin Igwebuike picked NU over Nebraska, Wisconsin, and many others. Kyle Queiro picked NU over half of the ACC. Travis Whillock (B+ for now, but let’s put a fat pin in that grade) was slightly less highly rated but was still part of “Katy Triplets” and still had a Wisconsin offer. JR Pace (GIANT ditto on the pin front) picked NU over at least 20 other schools.
Jared McGee (who earned a B+ from us but seemed determined to raise that grade during the Holiday Bowl) is really the only player to log significant minutes at safety during our four windows who WASN’T a major recruit. Hey, no complaints from us! Jerry Brown & Co were crushing it out on the road!
In terms of raw recruiting potential, Northwestern’s safeties match up with just about any school in the Big Ten. To the now-retired Brown’s credit, they have all played the way they were supposed to. Above all, this is Brown’s legacy; few coaches have done a better job with the safety position.
As far as Northwestern’s Cornerbacks are concerned: Cornerback is a fascinating position to look at for the ways in which it is similar to the Offensive Line, and the ways in which it is different.
The main similarity is that Northwestern has shown the ability to produce top talent at cornerback, but never enough of it.
Hey, it’s not like Northwestern hasn’t had awesome cornerbacks. Nick Van Hoose, Matt Harris, and Montre Hartage (who BARELY missed an A+) were all fantastic. You know what else they were a lot of the time? HURT. That’s not weird, it’s normal. Weird is having an entire offensive line start for a full season, or having a single running back carry the hopes of a fanbase for 4 full years. In real life, guys get hurt a lot in football. Cornerback has had the same depth issues as Running Back and Line, but none of the luck. And what we have seen is that, until relatively recently, there has been a big dropoff between Van Hoose/Harris/Hartage and everyone else at corner.
The main difference between corner and line comes in the actual development of players. By and large, the top performers in the OL were usually also the top recruits at OL. This hasn’t been the case at all at cornerback. Northwestern has had some devastating misses here on the recruiting front. Multiple 4-star recruits at corner failed to ever crack the starting rotation, and several high 3-star recruits also didn’t pan out. The saving grace is that Brown was phenomenal in turning TWO 2-star cornerbacks into All-Big-Ten players, and that doesn’t include Harris, whose recruiting didn’t pick up until midway through his senior year and who was still a mid 3-star recruit. This was fantastic work by Brown, but we do find it a little puzzling that a unit so successful at grooming top-shelf safeties didn’t repeat the same success with top-shelf corners.
Pulling back to look at the secondary as a whole compared to the offensive line, there is one other notable difference: The presence of “bonanza” classes in the secondary. In 2012, Igwebuike, Queiro, and Harris signed on in a single class. 2017 brought us Pace AND Cam Ruiz (he of the aforementioned blocked punt), and the jury is still out on other players in that class. As we said when discussing the OL, this doesn’t need to happen every year, but it sure is great when it DOES happen.