Cheatham Norrils had a pretty good 2012 football season for the University of Toledo.
Then a sophomore, he had 74 tackles, seven interceptions and/or pass breakups, and was voted All-Mid-American Conference third team. He was the Rockets’ best cornerback and, at times, the best defensive player on the field.
So imagine his reaction when spring ball began earlier this year and he took a glance at the defensive depth chart. The cornerback position looked like a convention; an open tryout, perhaps.
Norrils’ name was one of five crammed together on the top line. So much for 2012. It was a new year, and with it came a resolution, courtesy of UT’s coaching staff.
It wasn’t good enough to merely be good.
“What we saw looking back on film was that in 13 games nobody had really separated himself at cornerback,” Rockets coach Matt Campbell said. “Cheatham had some huge games, for sure. But we have a lot of talented young guys, and there hadn’t been the separation we were looking for. That was our message: Don’t be part of the pack.”
Instead, Norrils had to prove he was the lead dog.
What Campbell and his assistants saw from Norrils — a 2012 game like the one against Bowling Green, for example, when he had seven tackles, an interception, and was named MAC West Division player of the week — was the same as what they saw while recruiting him from St. John’s Jesuit High School.
“In football and basketball, when we saw him at St. John’s in the most critical situations, in the biggest games, he was always an elite player,” Campbell said. “He was the guy who stood out. It’s what makes him special.”
Left unsaid was the belief that in lesser situations Norrils wasn’t always quite as engaged.
“I knew coming in that last season I didn’t always play up to expectations, either the coaches’ or mine,” Norrils said. “I was All-MAC third team. All right, that’s fine, I guess. But it wasn’t good enough. I have to always want more.
“The coaches always push me, especially coach Campbell, to be my best, to do even more, to be a leader. I have to play with the best of them and help push everybody to the next level.”
To get there, he had to start from a level playing field that had sophomores Chris Dukes and Juwan Haynes as well as juniors Cameron Cole and Jordan Haden joining him as “co-No. 1s” on the depth chart.
It would be a mild understatement to say Norrils responded to the challenge.
“It started with the 15 spring practices and continued with him taking a leadership role during the summer when coaches weren’t around,” Campbell said. “Now we’re 11 practices in [to fall camp] and you turn the film on, and Cheatham is playing at an elite level every day.
“A lot of it, I think, is that he’s the veteran back there. He has played the majority of the snaps. He took to it. He realized, ‘Everything I do — spring, summer, or fall — everybody’s watching me and what I do.’ He has taken to that role and helped the young guys raise their level of play.
“Football is really important to Cheatham, and being a great player is important to him, too.”
But it’s not the only thing. The 6-foot, 195-pound Norrils also is a fine student with a 3.4 grade-point average with a major in criminal justice. It’s a pursuit that comes naturally to him considering his mother, Willa, is a Toledo police officer and his father, Eddie, is a probation officer.
“I make sure my grades stay up because I have to make sure my mom is happy,” he said, smiling. “I’ve never wanted either of my parents to feel I can’t do something. They brought me up to be smart and to be a good person, in sports and in the classroom. They’ve put me in a position to be successful, so I’m always trying.”
In life and in football, the challenges never end.
And this season, they present themselves right from the get-go for the Rockets, especially this young and still-growing defense.
The first two opponents, both on the road, are Florida and Missouri of the powerful Southeastern Conference. UT will have to be very, very good right out of the starting blocks to be competitive.
“A great schedule creates great expectations,” Norrils said. “We have to get better every day in practice to be in position to play with those teams. We have to go out and match their games and play at their level.”
That’s an elite level; something that Norrils is more familiar with on a consistent, every-day basis since breaking out of the cornerback pack.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.