Recruited off a peninsula to come play on an “island,” Florida-native Willie Middlebrooks has made his home as a key figure in the Gophers secondary.
The cornerback is part of the Big Ten’s leading defense that allows a mere 174.3 total yards per game.
But Minnesota has yet to play stronger competition and, as a result, opinions on Middlebrooks are of the wait-and-see variety. Gophers coaches should get a chance to see when their schedule resumes Oct. 2 at Northwestern.
“He’s dominating some people right now because they are not very good,” said David Gibbs, defensive coordinator. “But I want to see him play Purdue and play Ohio State. Until then, he ain’t done anything, he ain’t covered nobody. Purdue killed him last year.”
Gibbs is referring to the Big Ten opener last season at Purdue, when Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees laid waste to the Gophers defense with 522 yards passing and six touchdowns in a 56-21 win. Receiver Chris Daniels, who was guarded by Middlebrooks, caught six passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
But Gibbs also pointed out that if anyone will respond to such a beating, it’s Middlebrooks.
“He’s got a pride about himself,” Gibbs said. “It’s very important to him that he performs well. He’s not one of those guys who just lolly-gags around when they get beat. Anytime Willie gets beat, he’s pissed off.”
The resilient Middlebrooks is up for the week-to-week challenges the Big Ten season will bring.
“This year they’ve been putting me on the other team’s best receiver,” Middlebrooks said. “And that’s how I want to play until I leave here.”
Add coach Glen Mason to the list of those anxious to turn the questions about Middlebrooks’ potential into answers about his ability.
“We’re going to start to see some of the best receivers in the country,” Mason said. “Willie’s one of those guys that I can’t wait to see against some of those top-ranked receivers.”
Because he is only a sophomore, Middlebrooks will have ample time to make his mark. Being 6-feet-2-inches tall, 194 pounds, with a 4.38 second 40-yard dash, the converted safety has ample size and speed to make an impact.
“He’s got two more years left, and a guy like that is what the defense needs around here,” said teammate Tyrone Carter. “We cannot only rely on him to cover guys, we can rely on him to make good tackles. Willie brings a lot to the table as a corner for us.”
While some wear their hearts on their sleeves, No. 42 has his attitude needled onto his arm. A large pitbull adorns Middlebrooks’ right bicep, and he calls it the perfect symbol of his on-field demeanor.
“That’s the mentality you’ve got to have when your on the field: killer instinct,” Middlebrooks said. “Just bite and don’t let go. That’s how I try to play the game.”
Middlebrooks has been a figurative pitbull this season, clamping down hard on the poodle-like opposing receivers he’s seen so far. Middlebrooks has broken up four passes, and scored a touchdown on a 26 yard interception return against Louisiana-Monroe.
But it seems for all involved that education-major Middlebrooks will get his learning done on the job.
“Potential-wise he’s got everything you want in a big-time corner,” Gibbs said. “He’s just got to play against some good people.”
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]