Before the snap, all of the attention in the stands is focused on the football. In the mass of humanity surrounding the quarterback is where every play begins with the smashing of pads into each other as defensive linemen look to find a way to disrupt a play before it starts and offensive linemen try to neutralize the assault attempting to attack the football.
It is these collisions that hold our attention until our attention is drawn to a far off part of the field. There is a moment when the ball leaves the quarterbacks hand and arches down the field. It is only then that all eyes start surveying the action down the field in an effort to see who has won the battle on the island.
The island is a lonely place. There is a great concentration of players around the ball, but out where wide receivers and cornerbacks play there is no confusion about who is responsible when a receiver is wide open to haul in a pass from the opposing quarterback. It is the cornerback.
Playing cornerback requires a unique combination of athleticism, intuition, brains and ego. These skills have to combine in a special way to create a player who can get burned one play, and then line up across from the same receiver on the next one with unwavering confidence that the last catch was a fluke.
If Arkansas football is going to turn a corner (no pun intended) two players that will have to come up big playing on the island are Darius Winston and Isaac Madison. Their development is important so Rudell Crim can leave the cornerback spot he started all 13 games in last year for his more natural position at safety. If both Madison and Winston can meet expectations it will be a big boost for a defense that finished last in the SEC for pass during the 2009 campaign.
Winston will be a sophomore this fall, and came to Arkansas with an impressive resume. The Little Rock native had his choice of all the prized schools in the nation and was a USA Today first team All-American. Last year was one of growth for him as he played in four games and finished the season with six solo stops.
Madison missed last season after he tore an ACL in a scrimmage in August. Losing his talents was a big loss for the secondary in 2009, and it is expected his return will provide a much needed boost this year.
The junior from Dallas is one of those guys with all the tools needed to be a successful cornerback. He is fast and not afraid to be physical with a receiver.
Madison says a cornerback has to “always know what the situation is.” As he talks you start to understand that much of his success on any given play happens when the offense first steps to the line of scrimmage. How are they lined up, who is on the field and a dozen other simple questions have to be processed.
He will always know the down and distance. Third and long he will expect the quarterback to take a deeper drop in anticipation a longer pass, while third and short can be covered with a much shorter drop and quicker toss. He has to tighten his coverage up in this situation.
When the ball is snapped his hands are trying to get a jam on the receiver so he can’t escape freely from the line of scrimmage. From there he is going to be watching the hips of his man so he can get a feel for where he is going. A receiver can juke with his head and arms, but his body is not going anywhere without the hips.
In Madison’s head a mental clock is ticking time off until he should expect for the ball to be in the air. During this time his focus centers in on the ear hole of the receiver. When his head turns it is time to anticipate the ball coming.
There are also the eyes of the receiver that can be used to gauge the location of the ball. As the pass spirals toward him the eyes of the receiver will start to get bigger. To Madison, and other guys that play on the island, this is the ultimate sign to get their head around to break the play up or better yet, to steal the ball away so Ryan Mallett and crew can have another shot to make life miserable for some other poor corner living on an island.
Here is what makes Madison and other corners that have “it” special. When asked about how he reacts on the occasion when he gets beaten by a Julio Jones or A.J. Green down the field he says: “I just get ready for the next call so I can dominate when the ball is snapped again.”
Last year Arkansas fans took great delight in watching Greg Chiilds and other Razorback receivers’ embarrass opposing defensive backs. This year those same fans, and Bobby Petrino, hope Winston and Madison will double their joy by shutting down opposition receivers.