Nov. 2, 1999
By ERICA HURTT
The Wildcats have all of the pieces in place to develop a show-stopping secondary unit or a 21st century action hero.
Cornerback Harold Blackmon is the father figure who provides experience and a calming presence on the field. Strong safety Mycal Jones is the brute force who brings attitude to the game. Free safety Rashad Morton brings intelligence, and Shegun Cummings-John adds the youthful exuberance and confidence necessary to win.
Northwestern’s defensive backs unit form the last line of defense against enemy attack. If they make a mistake, everyone knows it and the entire team pays the price.
For that reason, secondary unit coach Brad Bolinger tells his players they need broad shoulders and short memories to survive as a defensive back.
“It can get very hectic back in the secondary and it is important for players to forget about breakdowns in coverage and to focus on the next play,” according to Bolinger.
In his first season at Northwestern, Bolinger has had to refine his players’ ability to play man-to-man coverage. Switching from the zone coverage they were comfortable with requires increased levels of aggression and speed.
The process has been smooth according to Bolinger, who doesn’t take credit for the successful transition. He says the players are responsible.
“The best thing about coaching at Northwestern is that you get great student-athletes,” Bolinger said. “I don’t think it would have gone as easy at a lot of other schools.”
His players, however, share their accomplishments with their unit coach.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Cummings-John said. “He is right with us and can relate to the things we have to face.”
Blackmon said Bolinger’s honesty is the most important instrument in his coaching toolbox.
“There are no secrets,” Blackmon said. “He let’s you know exactly what you’re doing, for good or bad.”
The players were receptive to the opportunity to play man-to-man defense, which helped too. “I don’t know a cornerback or safety in the nation who would say he doesn’t like to play man coverage,” said Cummings-John. “We’re confident in our ability to cover anybody we need to cover.”
“As individuals and a team, this is the kind of defense we need to play,” Jones said.
Cummings-John and Morton are newer members of the starting secondary unit, while Blackmon and Jones have a history. Blackmon, a senior and Chicago native, and Jones, a junior from Pennsylvania, saw a good deal of field time together last season.
“I have a comfort zone with Harold,” Jones said. “I know he’s going to be covering his man.”
Jones is the emotional leader of the unit. His teammates call him the “maniac.” His coach recognizes his passion for playing football and says his “motor runs a 100 mph all the time.” Jones has forced two fumbles and recorded 55 tackles in 1999. Blackmon, who ranks fifth in the Big Ten with nine pass breakups, refers to Jones as his “alter ego” and his “better half.”
As the Wildcats enter the second half of the season, the group is starting to come together and resemble a unit of veteran status. Although the players agree they haven’t met their goals as a unit, they have made important strides that aren’t exposed by looking at the team’s record.
“We haven’t achieved our goals as far as the win-loss column, but as far as effort and enthusiasm, we are doing alright,” Blackmon said.
When comparing this defensive back unit to others during his collegiate career, Blackmon thinks this is the best.
“We communicate better and nobody is out for themselves,” Blackmon said. “It is more of a team thing in the secondary unit now.”
Teammates have watched Blackmon develop into a leader and “one of the best cornerbacks in the league,” according to Bolinger.
“We see Harold do all of the little things,” Morton agreed. “Good teams will move their best receiver to the other side of the field when Harold is out there.”
Poise has been the biggest difference in his game this season, Blackmon said.
“When I feel action coming my way I can relax now and make a play,” he said. “Before I would get antsy and mess it up.”
Bolinger agrees with his players that they have fallen short of expectations, but they are “gaining on it every week.” One of the biggest improvements Bolinger noted is that the unit is not giving up big plays in the air, a problem that plagued the ’Cats in early contests. And Morton had a breakthrough week in the Northwestern’s final-second victory against Iowa, according to Bolinger. Morton complemented his smart play with more aggression and confidence against the Hawkeyes.
If Morton were in need of a nickname “Brain” would be a fitting one, after hearing comments from his coaches and teammates. Bolinger called him “one of the most intelligent players” he’s ever coached.
“There isn’t an offense he won’t recognize,” said Cummings-John, who is third in the Big Ten with 11 pass breakups.
Morton admits he was nervous during his first few outings as a starter. “But I have adjusted well and now I’m in a rhythm,” Morton said.
All four players will return for Northwestern next season, which in the words of Cummings-John means they can “only get better from here.”
“The future is reassuring, but Iím looking at the Wisconsin game” Cummings-John said. “When things go wrong for us, people say ‘Don’t worry. You guys will be together next year.’ But I don’t want to hear that. I’m playing now.”