Football: How Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph came to be one of the nation’s top defensive backs

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Brandon Joseph jogs during the Big Ten Championship Game. The redshirt freshman safety was a consensus All-American for the 2020 season.

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Football


Down 10-6 with less than 30 seconds left in the first half of the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State wanted the lead. So it went for the score.

From Northwestern’s nine-yard line, Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields looked to his right and lofted a pass to the back of the end zone. As the ball drifted towards wide receiver Garrett Wilson, Wildcats safety Brandon Joseph reached his right arm backward and palmed the pigskin with one hand. Falling through the air, the redshirt freshman clutched the ball to his chest as he hit the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.

After making one of the best plays in NU history, Joseph stood up in celebration and ran forward. He shook his head before cutting right across the turf, skipping twice and punching his fist through the air before high-stepping towards a hyped Cats’ sideline.

Even though Ohio State defeated NU 22-10 for its fourth-straight Big Ten title, Joseph’s sixth interception of the season — which tied him for the most in college football — and five tackles showcased why he is one of the top defensive backs in the nation.

A regular season with 44 tackles and five picks earned Joseph a consensus spot on the All-Big Ten First Team and the Big Ten’s Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year Award. On New Year’s Eve, he became the Cats’ first consensus All-American since 2000 and just the second defensive player in program history after former linebacker and current head coach Pat Fitzgerald to receive the honor.

Not many athletes — especially three-star recruits — playing their first year of college football have seasons like Joseph has. But thanks to a combination of fierce competitiveness, sheer athleticism and hard work, the redshirt freshman has defied the odds to become a driving force on one of the nation’s best pass defenses.

“Some guys can get positioned, but they don’t always come up with the play,” defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. “He finds a way to come up with a play.”

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In middle school, Joseph played offense. He remained on that side of the ball at College Station High School in Texas, where he was a quarterback and receiver on the top junior varsity team during his freshman year.

But things changed before the start of his sophomore season.

Coach Steve Huff told Joseph he would likely be a backup at both positions on the varsity team and asked if he would consider moving to safety.

At first Joseph declined, but later decided to take his coach up on his offer. Huff and College Station quickly learned it was a “great move.”

Joseph racked up 76 tackles, four interceptions and four blocked punts as the Cougars made the state semifinals. What stood out the most to College Station safeties coach Kyle King about the sophomore’s performance was his innate ability to make plays.

“More so than any kid I’ve ever coached, he has a way to find the football,” King said. “Whether it’s at receiver, in the nickel, at free safety, at strong safety, on punt block, he finds the football. You can’t coach what he has for being in the right position at the right time.”

According to King, Joseph started to exude more confidence and work even harder to become a better player after his second season. Between sophomore and junior year, Joseph gained 15 pounds in the weight room and increased his speed.

His growth clearly showed on the gridiron in 2017. During College Station’s run to the state championship, Joseph had 119 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, seven interceptions, four blocked punts and three defensive touchdowns.

Joseph’s powerful competitiveness also lifted him to new heights. From out-competing receivers to slowing four-star running back Jase McClellan — now at Alabama — in the state title game, Joseph proved he could take control in any contest.

“There’s a definite switch that turns off and on for him,” Huff said. “When you put (him) in an athletic arena … he’s gonna compete his tail off. That’s what makes him different from a lot of people. That competitive nature is second to none.”

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Joseph started receiving offers to play college football in the middle of his junior year from programs like NU, Purdue, Utah, Colorado, Iowa State and Harvard.

But the three-star recruit was not offered by blue-blood programs like Texas and Oklahoma and SEC squads like the Crimson Tide and Georgia. Hometown Texas A&M — whose stadium is located just about five miles from College Station High School — did not offer him either.

However, these teams did end up giving him a powerful asset: motivation.

“It wasn’t something that made him upset,” King said. “It was, ‘Okay, well, I’ll go somewhere then and I’ll prove to you that didn’t offer me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can play for you, and I can play with anybody in the country.’”

Joseph announced a top three of the Cats, Arizona and Texas Tech in June 2018. One month later, he committed to the Red Raiders.

He had a strong conclusion to his high school career, notching 95 tackles, five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in 2018. During College Station’s first-round playoff game, Joseph returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown and had 38 receiving yards.

In three years on the varsity team, Joseph set College Station career records with 16 interceptions, 10 blocked punts and nine fumble recoveries.

A week after the season ended, Joseph decommitted from Texas Tech on Dec. 8. One week later, he committed to NU before officially signing on Dec. 19.

“I think that we built a great relationship with him,” Fitzgerald said. “He made an initial decision and then reached back out to us and said that he was going to open up his recruiting. And, you know, he became a Wildcat.”

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According to Fitzgerald, Joseph “was really close to being in the mix” for a prominent role at safety as a true freshman. Even though the starting nods went to then-juniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock, Joseph saw playing time in four games and registered four tackles before redshirting NU’s three-win 2019 season.

Practice for the 2020 campaign started up in February and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian used the time to install his new offense. While watching film, he noticed Joseph making plays all over the field. So he asked Fitzgerald about the Cats’ emerging defensive star.

“He goes, ‘Man, that 16 is always at the ball,’” Fitzgerald said. “‘That young man is awesome. What’s his name?’ I was like, ‘It’s Brandon Joseph. I think you’re going to get to know him pretty well.’”

Joseph carried the same work ethic into summer ball, staying after practice with fellow redshirt freshman Coco Azema to catch balls and improve their ball-hawking skills.

He also spoke with King about his goals for the season. Most of them were team-oriented, like winning the Big Ten West and a conference championship, something King said demonstrated Joseph’s “quiet humility.”

“It keeps him really hungry,” King said. “He has those goals and things in mind and then he’s gonna do whatever he has to do and put the work in to match those goals.”

Before the season-opener against Maryland, Joseph was elevated to the starting lineup when Whillock opted out of the 2020 season. In mid-December, the safety expressed admiration for his fellow Texas native, calling him “an amazing mentor” and a key figure in his smooth acclimation to Evanston.

Joseph was all over the field in NU’s 43-3 win over the Terrapins. He led the team with seven tackles and racked up a tackle for loss.

One week later, the redshirt freshman introduced himself in a statement way to the Big Ten by grabbing two second-half interceptions in NU’s 21-20 win against Iowa. For his performance, Joseph earned Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

Then, during a 21-13 Cats win over Nebraska seven days later, Joseph mossed Cornhuskers tight end Austin Allen in the end zone for his third interception of the season — the same number of picks by NU defensive backs in all of 2019.

“After that Iowa week and I won Freshman of the Week, it was something that lingered on my mind,” Joseph said. “I started working for that Freshman of the Week every week. It was something I just had on the back of my mind.”

He would win the weekly award again. And more.

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As NU started its climb into the national conversation, Joseph’s play continued to improve.

He made four tackles against Purdue before racking up seven more and two interceptions in a win against No. 10 Wisconsin. When the Cats stormed Ryan Field in celebration, the soon-to-be two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week was quick to rave about his squad.

“Hey, we are the best defense in the nation!” Joseph said in a video posted to NU’s Twitter account. “No if, ands, buts. You see what we did!”

Throughout the season, the redshirt freshman has been quick to praise his veteran teammates like Pace and junior cornerback Greg Newsome II for their help.

“I’m not doing it on my own,” Joseph said. “I’ve got older dudes that I look up to and that I play for every single time I’m out there.”

The Texas native had 16 combined tackles — including a career-high 10 in a loss to Michigan State — in the regular season’s final two games. By this time, Joseph had earned numerous accolades, including a semifinalist nod for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in college football.

Not everything went the redshirt freshman’s way at the end of the season, as he was not named a finalist for the Thorpe Award — even though he had as many interceptions as all finalists combined — and NU lost to the Buckeyes. But the recognition still poured in.

In addition to All-American and All-Big Ten honors, Joseph was named the highest-graded strong safety in college football by Pro Football Focus, the Big Ten Newcomer of the Year by the Associated Press and a member of The Athletic’s Freshman All-America First Team.

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Joseph’s stellar redshirt freshman season will conclude on New Year’s Day when the No. 14 Cats take on Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.

Lots will be at stake, from NU lifting its second trophy of the season to sending Hankwitz into retirement with 400 career wins.

For Joseph, the clash in Orlando is another chance to add to his growing Cats legend. But most importantly, he gets one more game in the purple-and-white before season’s end.

“It’s an honor to be in this position,” Joseph said. “I’m honored and blessed to play on a defense like this.”

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