Improved Jones not looking back

Before last year's thriller in Ann Arbor, few had even heard of cornerback Daniel Jones. Now, as spring practice continues to up the intensity, he's the missing piece to a burgeoning defense with everything on the line.

"I laugh a little bit," rising junior Daniel Jones said after Northwestern's first Saturday practice of its spring session. "I like being the underdog."

A half-hour before, Jones was burned by senior wideout Rashad Lawrence on a streak route for a flashy scrimmage touchdown. Nothing to sweat, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Half a year before, Jones was the defensive back who tipped a Devin Gardner heave into the outstretched arms of Michigan's Roy Roundtree for a game-changing, 53-yard Hail Mary. But Jones doesn't looks back on his struggles, but instead looks forward to his assignment.

This spring, he faces a challenge taller than Lawrence, Roundtree, or any other opposing Big Ten receiver. With sophomore standout corner Nick VanHoose shelved until summer ball, Jones is tasked with leading an inexperienced secondary that was gassed by big plays all of last season.

"There's no substitute for experience," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz says when asked about Jones' 2012 struggles. "I like the progress we're making."

At first glance, Northwestern wasn't lacking in the secondary all that much. The Wildcats tallied 13 interceptions last year, tying for second-best in the conference, while opponents completed just over 58 percent of their passes. In the Gator Bowl, the Cats made a mess of one of the nation's most efficient passers in Mississippi State's Tyler Russell, and Northwestern held teams to under 20 points eight times.

But often when it mattered most, the secondary was second-rate. Vertical touchdowns and downfield receptions plagued the Wildcats in their biggest games of the year, leading to crucial losses against Nebraska and the Wolverines.

"We're out here battling every day," Jones said. "We've got to win those impact plays, find a way to punch, fight, scratch, claw; find some way to win."

Though nothing's been officially announced, VanHoose is the assumed No. 1 corner for Opening Day, while junior Ibraheim Campbell will be sitting back at safety. Beyond that, however, lies uncertainty.

"There's a lot of young guys now," Jones said. "I try to lead by example first and foremost."

Jones leads redshirt freshman Dwight White, C.J. Bryant and a slew of unknowns into practice time. Jones noted that he talks the other corners through drills and helps break down film, but his primary focus is still becoming a better tackler.

"I like the way he's improved. He's become more physical," Hankwitz said. "Leading by example is the strongest form of leadership."

He'll have to set that example from the get-go come fall. Northwestern faces towering expectations for 2013, fielding strong units across the board. If the secondary can catch up, the Wildcats stretch their ceiling for the upcoming season even further.

It's no easy task, though. The Cats face Ohio State's Braxton Miller on Oct. 5, then take on Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Gardner in November. Though stocked with talent, one faulty defensive back could mean the difference between a signature win and another harrowing loss.

But Jones continues to look forward. After Roundtree's miracle grab, Jones churned out solid performances against Michigan State, Illinois and Mississippi State. For a position that's perhaps just as much mental as it is anything else, Jones said he believes that he and his fellow cornerbacks are poised for a big season.

"Look at the TV, watch the games, you'll be able to see what the secondary can do."

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