Line dance

Matt Donnelly

After two games, the biggest change made to the Northwestern defense has attracted the least attention: senior Napoleon Harris’s move from linebacker to defensive end.

Coach Randy Walker wanted the Wildcats defense to make things happen. They did.

Their only proof to date was holding Duke to seven points, and even that total is two more than the Cats gave up against Duke last year.

Still, NU’s defense has made things happen. They’ve snared four interceptions. Also, the Cats’ linebackers have combined for 26 tackles.

But Harris’s four tackles at UNLV and five tackles at Duke were well short of the 10 tackles he averaged his sophomore and junior seasons.

If the performance of the 6-foot-3, 250-pound right end has seemed quiet in the early going, his teammates haven’t noticed. To them, his presence on the field rings loud and clear.

“If you watch him, he’s so explosive — he just makes things happen,” linebacker Billy Silva said. “And that’s the bottom line. Our defense is just trying to make things happen, trying to make plays and in the first two games, he’s definitely made plays.”

Like former NU player Conrad Emmerich, Harris stepped down from linebacker this season and found a new home on the defensive line. As a linebacker, Harris was a dynamic threat, with the size to take on any ball carrier and the speed to chase down any running back in the Big Ten.

“It’s a learning experience each week,” Harris said. “I’m still an outside linebacker playing defensive end. Luckily, I’ve been gifted with some athletic talent to be able to do it, but it’s still a learning process from week to week.”

And there’s little doubt about those gifts. Before making the move to the line, NU considered moving Harris to safety. Last season against Minnesota, Harris made a critical tackle when he ran down wideout Jermaine Mays late in the game and then helped to keep the Gophers offense from thwarting NU’s fourth-quarter comeback.

Harris said he ended up on the line instead of the secondary because of strategy.

“I could have definitely done it, but it was just a matter of the pass rush — that was one of the things we were going to concentrate on as a defense,” he said.

Harris saw some snaps at defensive end last spring, but he said his fate wasn’t decided until training camp in Kenosha, Wis., just a few weeks before the season started.

While his teammates see his transitions as seamless, Harris said the move to the line has had its stumbling points. Along with Silva and Kevin Bentley, Harris was a linchpin to one of the Big Ten’s strongest linebacking corps. But Harris’s former fellow backers know he can do more for the Cats’ defense from his new position.

“I don’t know how much he’d want to come back and join us, as many plays as he’s making,” Bentley said.

For Bentley, having Harris on the line is a new twist on an old routine. The two are starting together for the third season and Bentley said Harris’s new role hasn’t changed the way they work together on the field. Harris agrees, saying he and Bentley have kept in close contact.

“We can throw some wrinkles in there,” Bentley said. “Maybe coach doesn’t know this, but sometimes we’ll do something within the defense that he didn’t call, the kind of stuff that’ll work well for us in the heat of battle.”

But Harris admits that he hasn’t fused with his linemates in the way that he had the last two seasons at linebacker. Plus, the home he’s inherited is a broken one: starting tackle Pete Chapman is out with a blood clot and senior end Pete Konopka spent Sunday in the hospital with chronic back problems.

“At first, (communication) wasn’t the greatest, but now it’s getting better,” Harris said. “I think the chemistry is starting to work very well.”

Putting Harris on the line also brings Pat Durr into the mix. The junior had 62 tackles last season as a second-string linebacker and was named the conference’s defensive player of the week following his only start, against Illinois. Durr’s seven tackles against UNLV and five tackles at Duke have more than earned him the respect of his teammates.

“We needed to get (Durr) out on the field,” Silva said.

Harris and the Cats’ defense will get their biggest challenge to date (literally) when 6-foot-1, 250-pound Michigan State running back T.J. Duckett plows into their line. While NU held Duckett to one touchdown last year, its defense had thus far only seen Duke’s 5-foot-10, 180-pound Chris Douglas and UNLV’s 5-foot-10, 190-pound Joe Haro.

Duckett will be one of the few backs Harris will face who can match his own size. But that doesn’t worry him.

He’s knows he’s got the gifts to get the job done.