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Minnesota Football: The evolution of the slot cornerback

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Expectations for the nickel back are not what they once were

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Minnesota at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What is a slot cornerback?

First of all, it is important to establish that under defensive coordinator Joe Rossi the Gopher defense has operated out of a base 4-2-5 formation. That means four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Here is a typical look:

Minnesota Golden Gophers defense lines up in a 4-2-5 after the Fresno State spread offense

Fresno State is in a four wide receiver set, so the Gophers have Coney Durr and Terell Smith as their outside corners, with Chris Williamson in at slot corner on the wide side of the field and safety Jordan Howden providing help over the top. Antoine Winfield Jr. is playing center field as the free safety. Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin are your linebackers, with the more athletic Martin split out to cover the inside receiver on the short side of the hash. The four defensive linemen are Winston DeLattiboudere, Micah Dew-Treadway, Sam Renner, and Carter Coughlin.

Why the 4-2-5? The formation, which is also referred to as the nickel defense, was championed in the 21st century as the answer to the spread offense. TCU head coach Gary Patterson is perhaps the scheme’s most renowned innovator, having originally utilized it to counter power running teams before evolving it to defend the prolific up-tempo offenses of the Big 12.

I won’t get too much into the weeds on the nuances of the 4-2-5 — Google “Gary Patterson, 4-2-5” for ample supplemental reading — but the foundational tenet of the scheme is to flood the field with speed. Athleticism is emphasized over size, even at defensive end, where fleet-footed outside linebackers have been converted into undersized “rush ends” who can cause problems for slower offensive tackles. It’s an aggressive style of defense, one in which the goal is to use mismatches up front to generate pressure, attack gaps, and spill the ball to the perimeter.

The proliferation of the 4-2-5 has seen the role of the nickelback evolve from backup third cornerback to one of the most versatile defenders in modern football. Today, slot corners need be able to blitz the quarterback as pass rushers, step up in the run game as linebackers, and hold their own in coverage as defensive backs. That’s a lot to ask of one player.

How has Minnesota utilized the slot cornerback?

Chris Williamson, a transfer from Florida, made the slot corner position his home in his two seasons at Minnesota. He became such a critical part of the Gophers’ defense that I am more concerned about how Joe Rossi will replace his production than I am about filling the shoes of All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

Seriously.

One of the challenges of playing slot corner is that the slot receiver position is no longer relegated to lesser pass catchers. Team’s top targets in the passing game are lining up inside more than ever before. That puts a lot of pressure on slot corners, who are already in a precarious position due to their alignment. They don’t have the benefit of using the sideline as leverage or squeezing receivers into the boundary. Slot corners have to play both an inside and outside release. With more area to cover, one false step could spell doom.

Which brings me to a fourth down play against Penn State. On 4th and Goal at the 5, the Nittany Lions lined up in trips formation with three wide receivers on the wide side of the field, and KJ Hamler was in the slot with tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth ran a slant to try and disrupt the defenders in coverage as Hamler ran a fade to the corner of the end zone. But Williamson reads the route, breaks on Hamler’s hip, turns his head, and bats the ball out of bounds.

But as I mentioned previously, pass coverage is only one part of the position.

The slot cornerback also needs to be able to play close to the line of scrimmage, almost functioning as a third linebacker at times. Not every nickel corner who can hold their own in pass coverage is also a reliable tackler. You have to be physical and able to make tackles in space.

Williamson and Justus Harris were relied upon heavily against Georgia Southern last season, both operating out of the slot corner position but playing near the line of scrimmage to help stifle the Eagles’ option offense in run support. The pair helped limit Georgia Southern to 123 rushing yards (well below their season average of 253.2 yards per game).

Here, Williamson comes in from across the formation to drop the ball carrier for a minimal gain on third down after Thomas Barber whiffs on the tackle.

Last but not least, rushing the passer. On this second down play against Fresno State, Joe Rossi gets creative. DeLattiboudere takes the right tackle upfield and Thomas Barber blitzes, occupying both the right guard and the running back in pass protection. Williamson, sprinting in from his slot corner position, runs through an opening so big that he never even breaks stride en route to the sack. Coughlin is following close behind, ready to take a crack at the quarterback if Williamson can’t finish the play, but he requires no such assistance.

Who replaces Chris Williamson?

Senior Justus Harris is the most experienced slot corner on the roster, but his game action has been limited mostly to special teams. Redshirt freshman Solomon Brown and incoming freshman Jalen Glaze are both expected to compete with Harris at slot corner, but the lack of a clear successor to Williamson is a concern. Williamson was an unsung hero of the defense last season, and replacing his production will be no small task.