DeKALB – During Sunday’s scrimmage, Northern Illinois cornerback Dominique Ware watched the Huskies’ offense run the same bubble-screen pass to the slot receiver.
They ran it repeatedly. They ran it successfully. And in a film session afterward, NIU’s cornerbacks had ample opportunity to watch it again.
“We all got [mad] about that,” Ware said.
When the same play came Tuesday morning, Ware was ready. Nathan Palmer caught a screen pass from quarterback Chandler Harnish. Ware tackled him immediately.
Ware hit Palmer so hard, Palmer had to take a few moments to gather himself on the turf before groggily walking back to the sidelines.
“I kind of knew the play,” Ware said, smiling. “I really wasn’t supposed to fire on it, but it was just instinct. I fired on it and gave him a good shot.
“I knew it was kind of wrong, because he was off guard. But it felt good afterward.”
The Huskie cornerbacks, as inexperienced as they are aggressive, may be NIU’s biggest unknown this spring. Longtime starters Chris Smith and Patrick George have no more eligibility. Ware and Rashaan Melvin are taking first-team reps in their place, and Jimmie Ward has rotated in as the nickel cornerback.
But one positive has been clearly established: for the Mid-American Conference level, Melvin, Ware and Ward are as physically gifted as it gets.
Standing 6-foot-2, 186 pounds, Melvin – known as “Sticks” to his teammates for his tall, wiry build – towers above most MAC cornerbacks. At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Ware isn’t far behind, and Ward is 6-foot, 176 pounds.
“It’s a big advantage. We need to just use our size to our advantage,” Melvin said. “Take control with our long arms, we don’t need to be so tight on a guy (in coverage) because our reach is so long. We can cover a lot of ground.”
“With other corners that are kind of short, they’re quick. So they can move their feet, they’re a lot quicker than us. But we’re just long, so we can cover ground better.”
NIU coach Dave Doeren said Ware and Melvin’s size allow them to be in better position while the football is in the air, as well as get off blocks easier on running plays. He said the cornerbacks have done both well.
“I think our corners have been really solid,” Doeren said. “You haven’t seen a lot of deep (passes). They do a good job of getting off blocks and making tackles.”
With the offense adjusting to its timing, NIU’s cornerbacks appeared to have an upper hand earlier this spring. As the offense has learned Doeren and coordinator Matt Canada’s terminology, the Huskies’ passing game has quickly closed that gap. The past few practices indicated NIU’s receivers are ahead of its corners.
But redshirt senior Willie Clark, the Huskies’ top returning receiver, said the cornerbacks have pushed the receivers to improve.
“The cornerbacks are doing very well,” Clark said. “I know that was one thing that people had questioned coming into this year. But throughout the events of spring ball, they’ve really shown that they’re getting better every practice.”
“We go out here every day to make the corners get better, and they come out here every day to make us better.”
Melvin and Ware have shown improvement since the start of spring football, but cornerbacks coach Richard McNutt isn’t satisfied yet.
After every other position had left the field Tuesday, the Huskies’ secondary stayed behind to run sprints. Raising his voice, McNutt asked for one of them to step up and be a leader.
Overall, McNutt said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from his group. He just wants more of it.
“You always want more as a coach, and they should want more for themselves as players,” McNutt said. “So we’re going to continue to demand perfection. We’re going to get as close to it as possible. Technique and fundamentals, that’s all I want.
“They’re great enough athletes that once they get on the field and start playing, as long as they have those technique and fundamentals under their belt, they can just go out there and fly around.”