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Examining Northwestern’s secondary options after Keith Watkins II’s season-ending injury
August 16, 2016
7:25 pm
College BattleGround
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Northwestern’s projected top corner will miss all of 2016… What now?

If you’re just checking in, Keith Watkins II will miss all of the 2016 season with a non-contact knee injury suffered last week in practice. In no uncertain terms, this is bad for Northwestern. Not only does the team lose one of its two top corners and one of its most talented players, but it gets just a bit more shallow at a position already hit hard by graduation and players switching positions.

Watkins was set to enter the season the heir apparent to the top cornerback slot vacated by the graduated Nick VanHoose, and there was reason to be optimistic. Watkins started two games and appeared in 12 in 2015 and finished the year second among the team’s cornerbacks in tackles with 41 (29 solo), his best performance a nine-tackle game in Northwestern’s 40-10 loss to Iowa last October. He also started the Outback Bowl against Tennessee in place of the injured VanHoose and played solidly.

At 5-foot-11, Watkins was probably never going to be a shutdown corner capable of taking a superior team’s top receiving option completely out of a game. But, in limited action in 2015, he flashed real potential as a press corner with a knack for swarming to the ball and making timely tackles. In this play from early in the aforementioned Iowa contest, Watkins begins lined up opposite Hawkeye wide receiver Matt Vandeberg (the targeted receiver on the play) along the right hash mark at the top of your screen. Watch how Watkins immediately recognizes the play as a screen and breaks on the ball to make the stop in the backfield:

He’s even able to contort his body and maneuver around the Iowa blocker, get a hand in and force a fumble on the play while making the tackle. The play was ultimately negated by an offside penalty, but the point stands: Watkins was an active presence in Northwestern’s secondary and fit the team’s swarming defensive identity. He’ll be difficult to replace.

Watkins also showed skill in coverage against Tennessee, where Northwestern’s defensive strategy was a little different than against Iowa. Against the Vols, Northwestern opted for a more conservative style of play to attempt to cap the big-play potential of Tennessee’s litany of dynamic athletes; compare Watkins’ starting position at the top of the screen on this play to his position in the play against Iowa and note the contrast:

Watkins began the play playing off of the Tennessee receiver but does a great job breaking on the ball the second it leaves Dobbs’ hand. He times his strike perfectly in order to make contact with the receiver at the exact moment the ball hits his hands, so as not to draw a penalty but still successfully break up the pass. Watkins broke up three passes in the game, his highest total on the season.

But it seems trivial to fixate on Watkins’ success last season and his outlook (or lack thereof) for this one. He’s out of the picture for the time being. Of course, this fact begs the question: What does head coach Pat Fitzgerald do now? Here’s a look at some of Fitzgerald’s options to replace the hole Watkins leaves in Northwestern’s secondary in 2016:

Montre Hartage

Hartage, a sophomore, represents the most experienced option out of this group, and he’ll be the first to step in for Watkins. He appeared in all 13 games for Northwestern last season in a primarily special teams-oriented role, but will be called upon to take on a drastically expanded role in Northwestern’s defense this season.

“The first thing that ran through my mind was ‘I just gotta embrace the opportunity,’” Hartage told Inside NU on Tuesday. “I just gotta play and help my teammates win.”

At 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds, Hartage has great size for the position, and he listed his length as one of his strengths.

“I’m a pretty long guy, I can run pretty well, I think you can match me up with a pretty tall receiver and give him a good battle,” he said. ‘I’m just a physical corner back there.”

And it’s not as if he played only on special teams. On Tuesday, Fitzgerald mentioned Hartage played about 300 total snaps last year.

Here’s a look at Hartage’s tape from his senior year in high school:

It’s worth noting that Hartage was the final recruit to join the class of 2015. Fitzgerald characterized him as “really explosive, [with] great top end speed, very dynamic.”

Trae Williams

A redshirt freshman from The Plains, Ohio, Williams was one of the two cornerbacks, along with Marcus McShepard, tabbed to switch positions for the upcoming season. While McShepard switched to wide receiver, Williams’ move was only to safety, which leaves him available to Fitz for extended run in the secondary if needed, and there’s a good chance he will indeed see action at both spots.

“I think I’m a versatile player with my size and my ability to run the same speed as the other receivers and be able to come down and stop the run the well,” Williams said.

Williams saw no action in his true freshman season at Northwestern, but recorded 112 tackles, 26 passes defended, five forced fumbles and an interception in his high school career, while also rushing for over 5,000 yards and 102 touchdowns as a running back. He was the seventh-ranked defensive back in Ohio coming out of high school, per scout.com.

Alonzo Mayo

Mayo, another redshirt freshman, finds himself in a similar position to Williams: a respectably ranked (No. 40 overall recruit in Maryland) defensive back with no college football experience who will be asked to step up in a big way for Northwestern in 2016.

Mayo, who was also a track star in high school, recorded 41 tackles, five interceptions and nine pass breakups in his senior season. He listed his speed, footwork and general football smarts as his strengths.

“I really like the camp that Zo’s had,” Fitzgerald said. He, too, is encouraged by the speed and feistiness he’ll bring, especially in the slot.

Mayo and Williams are both listed at 5-foot-11, and while Williams outweighs Mayo by about 30 pounds, Mayo’s high school tape shows a little more polish as a defensive back than Williams.

There’s a definitive dearth of experience between these three options—not one has a college highlight tape—but there is no evidence that these guys aren’t ready to step up.

“For me, I really wanted to be out there anyway even before Keith got hurt,” Williams said. “I want to be able to make sure I prove to the coaches and everyone else on the defense that I can play, too.”

“We all had the same understanding,” Mayo said. “One guy goes down, the rest of us have to step up.”

Indeed, Alonzo, indeed.

Time will be the ultimate test of these players’ readiness to step up in Watkins’ injury-induced absence, but for now, a position of strength for Northwestern is a cause for concern just weeks ahead of the Wildcats’ season-opening matchup with Western Michigan.

One man who isn’t overly worried about losing Watkins, though, is the man who knows the team best: Pat Fitzgerald.

“They’re really talented guys,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we’ve got really good depth there. We’ve got really good depth in the secondary.”

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