Football: Open competition awaits Northwestern cornerbacks

Josh Walfish

Nick VanHoose’s first year with Northwestern has been a roller coaster.

The redshirt freshman cornerback was delegated to scout team for most of the fall, which brought some interesting opportunities. Most notably, VanHoose emulated Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the week leading up to the Wildcats’ battle with the Wolverines on Oct. 8.

VanHoose is now one of five players battling to be named the starting corner for the 2012 season opener against Syracuse on Sept. 1. With two spots open after the departure of seniors Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews, coach Pat Fitzgerald said the competition is wide open between the five defensive backs.

“We got an ongoing competition there,” Fitzgerald said. “We got a long way to go with that group. Two of those five guys will be our starters, and we are nowhere where we need to be yet. We’ll see who’s going to step up and rise to the occasion.”

VanHoose said he took a lot from his time on the scout team last year that can be carried over into this season. He said the constant competition against the NU offensive starters helped to push him and make him a better player.

“It’s all about competing,” VanHoose said. “Coming out there and going as hard as you can for as long as you can. Whatever position you’re in, just give the best look you can give.”

The competition at cornerback comes after the secondary struggled last season, giving up several game-changing explosive plays. The secondary also had issues making the crucial stops when they needed to, especially against Texas A&M in the bowl game when the Cats gave up a 21-yard completion on third-and-21 with less than four minutes to play in the game.

Fitzgerald said the battle will most likely last through the summer, and he won’t name any starters before then. Two of the corners fighting for those spots earned playing time on defense last season: rising senior Demetrius Dugar and rising sophomore Daniel Jones.

Dugar started against Iowa and Penn State last season, picking off Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg for his first career interception, but sat out three of the last five games due to injury. Jones replaced Mabin after the then-senior hurt his shoulder in the last game of the season against Michigan State and ended up starting the bowl game against Texas A&M.

Though those two may have a slight advantage, VanHoose has prepared for the open competition by concentrating on the mental apsects of the game such as focus and trying to learn the concepts.

“I’ve just been more focused, attention to details,” VanHoose said. “I’ve been learning formations better and making better calls.”

Communication was an important issue for the unit last season. There were numerous occassions of the secondary not knowing which coverage they were running and ended up letting wide open receivers down the field.

Fitzgerald has tried to fix that with more team-building exercises over the off-season. The coach even installed cameras on the sideline of some practices earlier in the spring to help listen to how the defense is communicating. He said the cameras were too much of a headache for him to keep dissecting films, but the message was sent.

Rising senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said the off-season drills were designed to keep the team in “game mode” and continuing the competition long after the season ended.

He talked about how early on Fitzgerald ran the team through drills in which communication was a large part of how successfully the drill would be completed.

“Early on there were a lot of drills that required more communcation,” Nwabuisi said. “We did team-building drills that communication was mandatory if you want to win. You really had to communicate, so we could keep it consistent instead of going from the season, not communicating for three months until spring ball and then picking it back up.”

Fitzgerald said he has made some changes to the off-season regimen to help create more competition. He hopes the increased competitiveness will help build chemistry.

Even watching the team from the sidelines, VanHoose said he learned the importance of communication. He said the defense needs to be on the same page, something he said was inconsistent last season.

VanHoose said the competition has forced him to focus more on the task at hand, but he is not putting off the idea of being on the field against the Orange to begin the season.

“All the corners have a chance to be a starter,” he said. “We’re all fighting for it and competing, nothing is set in stone. I feel like I’m up there on the depth so hopefully (defensive backs coach Jerry Brown) will start me.”

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