DeKALB – One step can mean the difference between nabbing an interception and getting burned for a score, NIU cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Nick Benedetto said.
So in an effort to improve on the team’s three interceptions from last year – only UMass had fewer – the Huskies have spent the spring working on that one step.
“If you’re off a step, that’s a completion, but if you beat him a step, that could be a [pass breakup] or an interception,” said Benedetto, who joined the team two weeks before the start of spring practice after spending two years at Samford as the defensive coordinator. “We’re just trying to as a cornerback unit find that step. If we find that step we believe big plays will happen for us.”
C.J. Brown, Dillon Thomas and Jaden Dolphin had the Huskies’ only interceptions last year, with Brown’s a pick-six coming in a MAC Championship game win against Kent State. Thomas has transferred, but Brown and Dolphin are back this year.
“Takeaways are always big for us, but I feel like this year, now, with coach Benedetto, he’s pushing it more in the sense we need picks,” said Brown, a safety who was the only Huskie with more than 100 tackles last year. “We’re changing stuff in terms of the back end. It feels like we had a lot of picks so far this spring, so we’re improving.”
Brown started the final 13 games last season after he took over for Devin Lafayette, who was injured in the season opener. Lafayette returns this year, as do three other safeties who started at some point last year – Jordan Hansen, Jashon Prophete and Louis Frye.
All five of those safeties are freshmen or sophomores.
“I feel like we look extremely better than we did last year,” Brown said. “I’m not saying last year we looked bad, but we’ve improved well. We’ve had a lot of young guys come out, show they can play. I feel like we’re all getting reps, not like during the season. We’re all showcasing our skills.”
None of the three interceptions belonged to a cornerback last year. And although new players such as freshman Javaughn Byrd and sophomore transfer Jordan Gandy made an impact last year, the goal is to improve the takeaways.
“Personally speaking, I had some missed opportunities, and I know some other guys feel like they had some missed opportunities,” Gandy said. “We have to a do a better job making our plays when our coaches put us in position to make them.”
Gandy is the only junior in the cornerback group loaded with freshmen and sophomores. Byrd started the final seven games at cornerback as a true freshman. Gandy was one of seven Huskies to start all 14 games last year.
“It’s a younger group, but [head] coach [Thomas] Hammock has done a wonderful job building the culture here,” Benedetto said. “These guys work incredibly hard. That’s probably the most impressive thing I’ve seen coming in here. They’ve put in extra time, work and effort to make sure they’re are at peak performance.”
Hammock said one of the biggest keys to forcing more turnovers is to get more pressure on other teams’ quarterbacks. The Huskies were 117th in the country last year with 19 sacks.
If quarterbacks are hurried more this year, Hammock said he has faith in his secondary.
“Our back end has really, really good ball skills,” Hammock said. “If people start throwing the ball up, they will come down with it.”