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Matthew Harris has got Northwestern's defense covered

Northwestern's Matthew Harris finished third in the league in passes defended last year and tied for third among Big Ten players with four interceptions. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Big Ten had a banner year at cornerback last season.

Iowa's Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award. Michigan's Jourdan Lewis was an All-American. Minnesota will have two corners drafted in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, while Maryland's Will Likely earned plenty of attention as a big-play machine. Ohio State's Eli Apple is a potential first-round pick. And on and on.

It was understandably difficult to stand out in that crowd. Which is why Northwestern's Matthew Harris's season went a little unnoticed. He was arguably one of the top cover corners in the league, playing on one of the best statistical defenses in the Big Ten and the FBS. Yet he managed only to make third-team All-Big Ten and received little national recognition.

He's hoping to change that as a senior.

"It pushes me and motivates me to move forward," he told ESPN.com this week. "I don't pay that much attention to it. But I have high expectations for myself. I'm not really knocking anybody else. That's just a goal of mine."

Harris finished third in the league in passes defended last year and tied for third among Big Ten players with four interceptions. The Wildcats were third in the FBS (behind Michigan and Wisconsin) in pass efficiency defense in 2015 and allowed a league-low five touchdown passes to be thrown against them.

Harris teamed with Nick VanHoose -- himself a second-team All-Big Ten selection -- to form one of the better 1-2 cornerback combos around. VanHoose has since graduated, leaving Harris as the main source of attention. He's got no problem taking charge, having served on the team's leadership council the past three years.

"I would say the top leader for us this year, probably on both sides of the ball, is Matthew," Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown said. "He's one of those guys who, when he talks, people listen."

Brown was impressed with Harris' maturity from the start of his college career, when he became one of the rare true freshmen to play right away for the Wildcats. He forced his way onto the field in 2013 despite arriving in Northwestern weighing a scant 164 pounds.

"It wasn't pretty," the 5-foot-11 Harris said of his skin-and-bones arrival. "I wouldn't bow down to anyone, though. I don't necessarily think it was a weakness, because I was able to retaliate with my speed."

Now at a more robust 182 pounds -- "I still don't think he has an ounce of body fat," Brown said -- Harris is more equipped to take on physical receivers around the league. Brown praises his vision, instincts, recovery speed and desire to be the best.

The quest for more recognition isn't all that's driving Harris in 2016.

He's one of eight children who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, raised by a single mom who left a troubled marriage. His mother, Tina, often worked three jobs to support the family and suffered some serious consequences from the stress of it all. Their story is told well here by the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein.

Game days in Evanston are like family reunions for the Harris clan. Matthew makes sure to locate all his brothers and sisters in the stands before games, and afterward they'll usually hang out, sometimes watching movies in his apartment across the street from the stadium.

"That's the most important thing to me," he said. "Win or lose, what I look forward to every game is seeing my family, seeing them smile. It puts things in perspective, especially after everything we've been through."

His family is one crowd into which Harris will happily blend. Standing out among the group of Big Ten star cornerbacks is another story.

"I just know what he does for us, and I'm sure people around the league know what he does to them," Brown said. "Right now, that's all that matters."