Football: Jaheem Joseph and Garnett Hollis Jr. step up in first career starts amidst injured secondary


Daily file photo by Gabe Bider

Members of the Northwestern secondary celebrate a big play against Rutgers in 2021. Jaheem Joseph and Garnett Hollis Jr. have risen to the starting ranks in recent weeks, but have learned plenty from their fellow defensive backs.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

Poised and patient, Northwestern junior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr. waited in the end zone.

When the ball slipped out of Duke wide receiver Eli Pancol’s hands, Hollis sprung into action. After some jostling, he took the ball and ran, saving the Wildcats from falling into a 28-10 deficit. 

Hollis’ quick thinking wasn’t enough to spur a broader NU comeback at Saturday’s game. But it did lead to his first career interception — a highlight amid the Tennessee native’s first career start. 

“I was just trying to focus on the ball before it hit the ground,” Hollis said. “I finally got a handle on it and secured it. I tried to make that play for my teammates.” 

Hollis and junior safety Jaheem Joseph — who also recorded his first career start — took the helm in the secondary on Saturday, stepping in for injured junior safety Coco Azema and senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the secondary played with a “next man up mentality” in the absence of Azema and Hampton Jr. During the week leading up to the Duke contest, he said players showed up at each practice knowing it could be their opportunity to gain more playing time.

Joseph, who led the defense with nine tackles and seven solo tackles, said he was readying for his big moment well before Saturday. He said members of the secondary, including Hampton, Azema and now-Cleveland Browns cornerback Greg Newsome Jr. took him under their wing when he arrived at NU. Their guidance led to a smooth transition when Joseph earned the starting spot. 

The defensive coaches’ attitudes were important, too. Joseph said they emphasize that every team member’s contribution is key to returning to the Big Ten Championship.

“Everyone prepares as a starter each week,” Joseph said. “There [were] no major changes. Everyone had to lock in and know that if they call your number, you gotta step up.”

Like Joseph, Hollis said upperclassmen leaders such as Azema and Hampton Jr. have been central to his experience in the secondary, pushing him to be the best player he can be.

When Hollis saw Hampton go down, he said he knew it was time to show what he was capable of. Hampton has been nothing but supportive since.

“He’s been in my ear telling me, ‘You’ve been working hard for this,’” Hollis said. “‘It’s your time.’ I’ve been going off of that, and just trying to make every play I can.”

While Hollis and Joseph played breakout games against the Blue Devils, the Cats failed to  overcome their 21-0 deficit in the first half. But between injuries and inexperience playing together, NU is working to fix its defensive woes ahead of their matchup against Southern Illinois. 

The defense is still growing but isn’t where it needs to be yet, Fitzgerald said. He credited Joseph, who experienced “baptism under fire,” and Hollis for their roles on Saturday, saying they were among several other inexperienced or new players who were poised for success.

“Some guys need to get into their routine (and) how they’re going to settle in and be the player they’re capable of,” Fitzgerald said. “But, man, I love their talent. I love their spirit. I love the growth that I’ve seen from them.”

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