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Published: Tuesday, 8/7/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

6 battling for Rockets' cornerback opening

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
From left, Jordan Haden, Chris Dukes, and Byron Best are hoping to play this season for the Rockets. Dukes and Best are listed as cornerback starters. From left, Jordan Haden, Chris Dukes, and Byron Best are hoping to play this season for the Rockets. Dukes and Best are listed as cornerback starters.
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When the cornerbacks gathered to get their photo taken, an inspection of the roster was needed to tell one from the next.

Aside from dreadlocks flowing from the heads of a couple of them, there is not much physically that distinguishes the individuals involved in the most intriguing position battle at the University of Toledo.

Six mostly short and mostly fresh-faced players will try to separate from the masses in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 1 opener at Arizona. Aside from senior Byron Best, who started at cornerback as a freshman, no one has favorable odds to secure one of the two vacant spots.

Redshirt freshman Chris Dukes and true freshman Juwan Haynes have never played in a college game, and three others -- Keith Suggs, Kishon Wilcher, and Cheatham Norrils -- are in only their second year in the program.

"Very young, very talented," Best said at Monday's media day.

A seventh candidate, Jordan Haden, could join the fray soon after he is medically cleared.

Whomever comes out on top will comprise a tandem looking nothing like the one seen the last two years. Desmond Marrow, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is three inches taller than UT's tallest corners -- six-footers Norrils and Haynes. Taikwon Paige, a two-year starter, played at 5-11 and can see over all of the returners except for Norrils and Haynes. Not to worry, says coach Matt Campbell, who said the scheme has been adjusted to minimize any height deficiencies and accentuate the group's athleticism "instead of this is what we do and we're going to try to fit you that way."

Cornerbacks coach D.K. McDonald plans to spend this week evaluating the players some more and should have a clearer understanding of a hierarchy by next week. Here's a look at the players he will be vetting, listed in alphabetical order by first name.

■ Byron Best, senior. 5-9, 195. Best has 14 career starts at cornerback and is transitioning back to the position after spending last season as a reserve linebacker. His advantage in strength combined with his experience gives him the upper hand at boundary cornerback. Best, timed at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, is tied with receiver Bernard Reedy for fastest on the team.

■ Cheatham Norrils, sophomore. 6-0, 195. Coaches don't know what to do with Norrils, which is viewed as a compliment and not an insult against the St. John's Jesuit product. Norrils is capable of playing cornerback or safety, having been tossed back and forth several times in the last 12 months. For now he's at cornerback, his most direct path to a starting job given his unlikeliness to supplant senior safeties Jermaine Robinson or Mark Singer.

"Moving me from safety to corner helps because I can play both positions, and [my size] gives me a little bit of an advantage at corner," Norrils said.

■ Chris Dukes, redshirt freshman. 5-9, 185. Of the four cornerbacks in their second year at UT, Dukes is the only one who redshirted. Yet, he's above all others on the depth chart, sitting at No. 1 opposite Best. McDonald likes his quickness and his leaping ability but said Dukes has a tenuous hold on the job.

■ Juwan Haynes, true freshman. 6-0, 185. A two-star recruit out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Haynes is the wildcard. On the surface it would seem unlikely a true freshman would get significant playing time, let alone start, but it's not as if his competition is seasoned.

"It will be interesting to see how he develops these next couple of days," McDonald said.

■ Keith Suggs, sophomore. 5-10, 175. Suggs, who started three games last year, entered the spring atop the depth chart. Suggs' vertical jump -- 39.5 inches -- is tops on the team by two inches.

■ Kishon Wilcher, sophomore. 5-7, 168. Wilcher, who led all UT freshmen in tackles with 28, has been slowed by an injury. He is expected to be ready soon.

The two who end up prevailing won't have time to get comfortable. UT will see three quality quarterbacks to open the season: Arizona fifth-year senior Matt Scott, a dual-threat quarterback suited well to operate coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense; Wyoming's Brett Smith, who led all BCS freshmen in total offense last season with 3,332 yards, and Bowling Green's Matt Schilz, who has thrown for more than 5,200 yards in his two years as starter.

"We have talent, and we're going to show what we can do when it comes Sept. 1 and we go out to Arizona," Dukes said.

HAUSER LEAVES: Director of high school relations Chris Hauser has left for a similar job at Wisconsin. Hauser handled many areas of recruiting, such as setting up visits.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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