It is safe to say Daniel Jones’ big debut did not go as well as planned.
The redshirt freshman cornerback was suddenly thrust into the starting role against Michigan State when senior Jordan Mabin left the game with a right shoulder injury. In his “baptism by fire” as senior safety Brian Peters put it, Jones got burned deep for touchdowns on two separate occasions by wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.
“The mistakes that D.J. made in the Michigan State game were all mental,” Peters said. “They were all little things, but those little things turn into big things when you get exposed.”
Covering a second-team All-Big Ten wide receiver like Cunningham was a big step up for Jones, who had previously spent most of his time with Northwestern’s scout team defense.
Jones learned a clear lesson from his performance in the Wildcats’ 31-17 loss to the Spartans.
“I just learned that you have to focus every single play,” the redshirt freshman said.
Though he might wish to have some plays back from his first game of solid action at cornerback, Jones’ confidence hasn’t wavered.
“At cornerback especially, you have to have thick skin,” Jones said. “You’ve got to have that mindset that you’re going to go out and you’re going to be the best player on the field. You’re going make plays.”
That thick skin is the same quality that helped Peters brush off early setbacks and grow into NU’s team leader in interceptions this season. Like Jones, Peters was thrown onto the field as a redshirt freshman defensive back, and in his second career start, got burned deep for a touchdown against Ohio State.
“Usually in the secondary, you have to get beat before you get better,” Peters said. “You have to have learning experiences like that.”
With much to learn from his play against the Spartans, Jones will need to be a quick student as he prepares to start in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas as a result of Mabin’s season-ending shoulder surgery. Although experienced players like junior Demetrius Dugar have started more games than Jones, Pat Fitzgerald said Jones has earned the coach’s continued support.
“He’s earned it out here on the practice field,” Fitzgerald said. “No. 1, he competes. He’s got great speed. He’s got great feet, hips and change of direction.”
In describing what Jones brings to the secondary, both Fitzgerald and Peters highlighted the Floridian’s athleticism. So it’s no surprise that Jones said the player he tries to emulate is the New York Jets’ Antonio Cromartie.
“He’s not really a great technique guy, but he’s a ‘see the ball, go get the ball’ type of guy,” Jones said. “He just uses his athleticism and what he’s been blessed with to make plays. I want to be a technical player as well, but that’s kind of what I rely on too.”
Jones has learned directly from another NFL player, his cousin Sam Madison. Madison was a four-time Pro Bowl selection in his 12 years in the league and was a member of the Super Bowl XLII champion New York Giants.
“I worked with him a little bit, just getting a couple tips on how he played in the league,” Jones said. “Just understanding the game and understanding receivers, what they like to do, tendencies and how they run their routes.”
Jones will now need to put Madison’s coaching into practice if he is to successfully replace Mabin, a four-year starter for the Cats.
“You can’t replace experience,” Peters said. “(Mabin) basically shuts down one side of the field.”
Unable to help NU halt Texas A&M’s 18th-ranked passing offense on the field, Mabin has instead been mentoring his apprentice, a role he performed even while healthy.
“He’s been helping me, giving me tendencies of what receivers like to do, how he plays certain situations,” Jones said. “Jordan has helped me grow since day one.”
This article is the seventh in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as football beat writers Josh Walfish and Colin Becht debate athlete Kain Colter’s future role in the Wildcats’ offense.