"We thought he'd be a pretty good corner," defensive backs coach Jerry Brown recalled of the 2011 practice. "Our thought process was to redshirt him and allow him to work on his foundation. We thought he had a lot of innate ability."
With a year of learning and growing under his belt, VanHoose was handed the heavy burden of becoming Northwestern's top cornerback. It was a great responsibility he was to handle. To prepare VanHoose for a tough task, Brown put him through adverse situations in practice.
VanHoose understood the demands he was put through were used by his coach as a teaching moment.
"He has pushed me more because he knows I can do it," VanHoose said of Brown. "He pushes me more if I mess up, but gives me good advice. He doesn't take me out if I do something wrong. He keeps me in there to learn from it."
During practices this summer, VanHoose would run through game-like scenarios in which he must react appropriately. His first time on the field would provide tremendous pressure.
"He has made a big emphasis on getting experiences," said VanHoose. "That means out on the practice field. He makes a big emphasis about making plays that build confidence. Once you build up your confidence, you can take that to a game and feel much better about yourself."
With comfort and confidence at cornerback, VanHoose ran with his role. He became a tough matchup for each opponent's top receiver. However, it took him five games—including several close calls—to record his first career interception.
VanHoose had 31 tackles and seven pass breakups through Northwestern's game with Nebraska, but his stellar season came to a halt during that game. A dislocated shoulder left him with unbearable pain and an unwanted recovery.
"Nick has played really well and had some great success early," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And then, like a lot of competitors, you get injured. How are you going to deal with that? I think he went through the initial wave where he was very disappointed."
The pain for VanHoose was felt more emotionally than physically before the Wildcats' game with Michigan. During pregame warm-ups, he was ruled unable to play—so close to feeling ready for a return. The game turned in the Wolverines' favor on a Hail Mary pass from Devin Gardner to Roy Roundtree.
VanHoose was forced to watch from the sidelines, knowing it could have been him to make the game-saving play.
"It was pretty disappointing," he said. "That game, especially, that hurt."
Against in-state rival Illinois, VanHoose returned to the field, and capped his first regular season with an interception of Reilly O'Toole. Even in a shortened season, VanHoose was named FOX Sports Next Freshman-All American.
With one more game left, then three more seasons, VanHoose has a bright future ahead of him.
"He's full-speed," said Fitzgerald, "and ready to go."