Football: How Northwestern’s Pick Club became a dominating defensive force

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Football


In 2015, Northwestern’s secondary took the Big Ten by storm. Across eight conference games, the unit held all opposing quarterbacks to less than 300 yards and notched eight interceptions. 

That season, the defensive backs dubbed themselves the Sky Team. And they lived up to the moniker as the Wildcats finished the season with the Big Ten’s fourth-best total defense. 

Today, NU’s secondary is following in their predecessor’s footsteps. In 2020, the defensive backs have combined for 72 of the Cats’ 200 tackles and intercepted six passes.

But this season, the unit does not have a nickname. It has the Pick Club.

“It started after last season when we were emphasizing picks, picks, picks, as something we had to improve on,” junior cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “I think we’re doing a great job right now.”

After three games, four members of the secondary have earned entrance into the Pick Club, as well as two linebackers. The group has the most interceptions in the Big Ten with eight and topped the Cats’ 2019 pick total at the beginning of the fourth quarter against Nebraska.

Defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson incorporated more ball drills into practice this offseason. He credited his players— who recorded only three of NU’s seven interceptions last season — with prioritizing the need to create turnovers.

To increase his ball-hawking skills, redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph stayed after practice every day to catch balls with fellow redshirt freshman safety Coco Azema. Joseph now leads the Pick Club with three interceptions, while Azema nabbed an interception in the Cats’ win over Maryland.

“That’s why our hands are the way they are and we’re just gonna continue to work like that,” Joseph said. “Over the offseason, (we) put an emphasis on catching the ball so that there’s no missed opportunities on interceptions.”

Part of the Pick Club’s success can be attributed to the defensive backs’ next-man-up mentality. According to MacPherson, that mindset has been in the room for three years and enables every player to learn necessary schemes and information.

After NU’s 43-3 win over the Terrapins, senior safety JR Pace credited the mentality to the success of underclassmen like Joseph, Azema and sophomore cornerback A.J. Hampton — who earned his spot in the Club with a first-quarter pick of Taulia Tagovailoa — saying “it only takes one play.”

With two interceptions in the Cats’ 21-20 win over Iowa, Joseph solidified his spot in the Pick Club. Additionally, his performance this season has garnered him another honor: the third highest grade of any defensive back in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus College.

There are some in the secondary that have yet to snatch an interception this season like junior cornerback Cameron Ruiz. Despite this, he is helping underclassmen work towards a place in the Pick Club.

“I needed to take a leadership position,” Ruiz said. “Coming into the season, I felt like I needed to step up as a leader, especially for the young guys because I knew they had the potential to play and I wanted to help them build their confidence.”

On Saturday, NU’s defense will have a major test against Purdue and quarterback Aidan O’Connell. The junior signal-caller and star receiver David Bell have orchestrated the Big Ten’s top passing offense, one that will elevate to new heights if All-American Rondale Moore returns this weekend.

There is no question the Cats bring their own juice to every game. But if someone joins the Pick Club or continues their interception streak at Ross-Ade Stadium, NU’s energy will go to a whole new level.

“We’re playing for each other,” Newsome II said. “Last year, we didn’t have a great overall record, but I think we were playing balls to the wall last year too, so we’re just going to keep going and keep going.”

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