DeKALB – There was a moment Saturday that defines what’s happening this spring at cornerback for Northern Illinois better than any other.
Junior cornerback Kiaree Daniels stepped in front of wide receiver Nathan Palmer to pick off quarterback Chandler Harnish on a pass near the sideline during Saturday’s scrimmage at Huskie Stadium. Daniels took it up the field about 50 yards before the play was whistled dead.
His pick drew the attention of everyone in attendance and, per the usual for any turnover caused by the defense, Daniels’ defensive teammates ran onto the field in celebration.
Daniels viewed it a little different than the celebration would suggest.
“I feel that was just a basic interception for me,” Daniels said. “My defensive line just got good pressure and I just played the ball.”
When asked how he would grade the cornerbacks as a whole, Daniels didn’t hold back on that, either.
“I want to say we’re at a C average right now,” he said. “I feel like we’re average right now. I feel like I’m average right now.”
The Huskies lost three solid cover corners to graduation in Chase Carter, Bradley Pruitt and Melvin Rice. Before spring camp, junior Patrick George, with all of one season of what anyone could call real experience, was the only corner who seemingly had a starting job in hand.
Despite suffering a broken hand, George has continued to practice and done nothing to dispute that notion that he will be relied upon in the secondary.
Saturday, George had the presence of mind to get his his arm up and tip a Harnish pass that was behind him and a receiver, which then landed in the hands of safety David Bryant.
“He’s improved tremendously,” NIU coach Jerry Kill said of George. “He’s grown up. He looks like a pro corner. He’s a big, strong-looking kid.”
Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel saw both Daniels’ and George’s plays, and said it’s indicative of a point of emphasis he’s had for his group during the offseason. After the defense pulled in only six interceptions last season, Sawvel wants his corners and safeties to focus more on completing an interception rather than just knocking down the ball.
“We weren’t as good as that last year as reflective as the number of interceptions we had, that type of thing,” Sawvel said. “We dropped a lot of balls last year. They caught them today. Kiaree has pretty good hands. Patrick has pretty good hands.”
But even with the few big plays from Saturday, Sawvel agreed with Daniels’ C assessment.
“I saw people compete for the football today, which is a good thing,” Sawvel said. “But we’ve got a lot of things to clean up and get better at.”
NIU has also tried to address the depth that it lost at corner by moving wide receiver Tommy Davis to corner. Health, as it is with any position, will be key to the depth NIU has for the 2009 season.
“I will tell you that going into this thing that was a place I was concerned about and moving Tommy over there I’m not near as concerned,” Kill said.
The key to the corners will be, can the experience and reps in spring ball and two-a-days translate to the regular season? That remains to be seen for now.
“They made some plays,” Sawvel said. “But the thing is, it’s still an inexperienced group."