Sept. 9, 2000
The silence was deafening.
A frustrating, trying season had just come to its conclusion in Champaign, in the form of a 29-7 loss to Illinois. Head coach Randy Walker had given his traditional post-game speech, and now the players had broken down to their respective positional coaches.
Suddenly, from deep in the far corner, a voice lashed out at his teammates.
It was Harold Blackmon, talking to the rest of the defensive backs. It was animated. And the message he sent was clear.
Don't think you are better than your opponent.
Don't believe you are better than your opponent.
Know you are better than your opponent.
"I felt like it needed to be done," said Blackmon recently, recalling that stirring, improvised speech. "I wanted to set the mood for this year, and I didn't want to wait until it was too late. I wanted to start the tempo right from the get-go."
"As a senior, I was thinking about those things," said Rashad Morton. "But Harold said it much more eloquently."
Fast-forward nine months. Do the words still ring true?
"I know it stuck with me during the offseason and drove me," said Morton.
Entering the 2000 season, the Northwestern defensive backs bring a mix of young and old. Blackmon and Morton represent the old guard as fifth-year seniors. Shegun Cummings-John was a starter last year and brings experience as a junior, while Rashidi Wheeler will get regular action for the first time in his career. Finally, don't be surprised to see Raheem Covington and Chasda Martin, a pair of redshirt sophomores, on the field.
"I don't feel like we have a weak link in the backfield," said the Wildcats' coach of defensive backs, Brad Bolinger. "We'll be a lot better in the secondary this year. The guys have been busting all through the offseason, and they understand what it takes. We have a great group of guys, and I expect great things out of them."
Now, Bolinger may be given to hyperbole. And maybe he's just trying to boost his troops. But it is an impressive group -- and the preseason publications have taken note. One of them rated the group the fourth-best in the Big Ten.
Last year, the Wildcat DBs set a school record with 60 pass breakups, including 17 by Blackmon and 14 by Cummings-John. Both of those marks broke the single-season record of 13 held by Rodney Ray.
"I don't think we got a lot of respect last year," said Blackmon. "There were games where we gave up a lot of yards last year, but we also played well in certain games."
And that is the plight of the defensive back. You can play well for an entire game, but mess up once and the results can be disastrous.
"If a defensive back takes one play off, it's six points for the other team," said Bolinger, "and everyone knows that you screwed up. Even those people in the stands who don't understand football know that you made a mistake."
That's why Bolinger feels that the mental aspect of playing the position is probably more important than the physical aspects.
"The fact of the matter is that everyone in this position is going to get beat on occasion," he said. "The key is to know in their head that they are good enough to come back and shut the guy down on the next play. Before you get to the technique stuff, you need a guy who is giving 100 percent."
In other words, you need a guy who knows he is better than the receiver he is covering.
"You definitely need to have confidence at this position," said Blackmon, who started every game in 1998 and 1999 at cornerback. "Teams are going to get breaks and opportunities. The key thing is we're also going to have opportunities to make things happen, and we have to take advantage."
"Confidence is huge, especially at this level," echoes Morton. "We face great receivers every week, so we need to know we have the ability to shut them down."
Morton is actually a good example of that. He played in every game in 1997 and 1998, but had just 33 tackles and one interception. Last year, he started every game at free safety and got bigger and better with each passing week. He says confidence had everything to do with it.
"I wouldn't say there was a lack of confidence, but there was hesitancy," he said. "But after awhile it became a matter of saying, `OK, I know this. I know where I need to go, where to be.' Once I got that down, it got a lot easier. And I'm just ready to go for this year."
With their vast experience, Morton and Blackmon give Bolinger an excellent nucleus. But he thinks the younger guys are going to quickly catch on and help out.
"Rashidi hasn't been a defensive back for very long, but he is a big, athletic, fast guy," he said. "And on the corner, Raheem has really solidified things. You add Shegun into the mix, with all he accomplished last year, and I think we're going to surprise some people."
One other thing the DBs have going for them is a front seven that expects to do some good things in 2000. Because as any defensive back will tell you, it is a lot easier to cover a wide receiver for, say, two seconds than it is for 5-10 seconds.
"In forming a team that likes to blitz, we tell our front guys that they have to get to the quarterback," said Bolinger. "The sooner our guys get to him, the sooner he has to get rid of the ball, and the easier it is for us to cover the route."
Although he prefers coaching the defensive side of the ball, Bolinger offers a unique perspective for his charges. That's because he was a wide receiver in college, and began his coaching career as an offensive coordinator.
"I think playing offense, and definitely coaching offense, has made me a better defensive coach," he said. "You come to understand things better as a coach, and I like the analytical side of coaching defense."
"He definitely coaches like a receiver," said Blackmon with a laugh. "He is always playing it safe. But we're DBs -- we're going to take chances."
"We feel a lot more comfortable with Coach Bolinger this year," said Morton. "We've been through a season with him now, and we've basically spent two offseasons with him.
"But honestly, I think what is more important is that we know each other," he continued. "Harold and I have played together for a long time, so we know where the other is going to be and what he's thinking. But we also know these other guys, and we feel comfortable with them. That is going to make a huge difference."
"I feel great about the season," said Blackmon. "If you overlook us, we're going to sneak up and make you pay. We're going to be out there every Saturday, ready to go."
Sounds like these guys know that they are going to have a big year in 2000.