Tariq Castro-Fields is the elder member of Penn State’s defensive backfield entering the 2020 season, and with that experience comes much responsibility.
On the field, he has to step up and be a lockdown corner playing against the opponent’s top receiver. Off the field, he needs to be a leader for a unit that is talented but basically inexperienced.
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More important, however, he must take strides to become a consistent performer, a problem that surfaced last season when an early injury and added bumps and bruises affected his play as the year progressed.
“Of course it was a frustrating process, but the coaches had a plan for me and I tried to do the best I could,” Castro-Fields said recently on a conference call with reporters. “Whatever they asked me to do, whatever my role was for the team, I wanted to do it to the best of my abilities.
“It was kind of frustrating but coach [James] Franklin preaches that you’ve got to do only what you can control. That was my main focus. I’m fully healthy now. I’m ready to go.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound senior, who has played 37 of a possible 39 games with 15 starts since arriving in Happy Valley, has impressed his coaches with a solid combination of speed and length. A third-team All-Big Ten cornerback last season, he tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) and pass breakups (eight), and was fourth with 32 solo tackles.
However, after a stretch in his first four games when cornerbacks coach Terry Smith described him as “looking like a first-round [NFL] draft choice,” Castro-Fields suffered an injury of an undisclosed nature in the fifth game against Purdue that took away from his early effectiveness, and he never returned to that level.
“From that injury on, he was a different player,” Smith said last month. “He wasn’t as confident, he wasn’t as sure of himself. Because of the injury – and not to make excuses – he knows and recognizes it and we’ve talked about it. It’s one of our offseason plans and goals for him, to make sure that he can be more consistent throughout the season.”
Castro-Fields said he was playing physical football in the early going and he was confident in the defense, which allowed him to play fast. He said his performance later in the year showed him that he needs to focus on doing “a lot of things that can help me maintain the fundamentals.”
Castro-Fields plans to keep employing the lessons taught him for his first three years by former teammate John Reid, the St. Joseph’s Prep product who was drafted by the Houston Texans in the fourth round of April’s NFL draft. He mentioned Reid’s competitiveness, his drive, his focus on the next play, and his ravenous film study.
“Everybody knows he’s a film junkie,” Castro-Fields said. “The first part was the thing he showed me, how to break it down and what to look at, whether it be third-and-1, third-and-5 through third-and-8, really like the kind of little things that come from watching film.”
Castro-Fields has been at his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., since the pandemic closed Penn State and other college campuses across the country. He said he’s enjoying his mother’s cooking but that he has to fight off boredom.
“I’m just always trying to find something to keep me occupied and not be bored because at school we’re always doing something,” he said. “I’m always on the clock. Being at home, you kind of have to be self-motivated to do the things that you know you need to do.”
Castro-Fields will need to do plenty in 2020. He said he doesn’t feel any pressure to perform, but his position coach has a checklist of things he’d like to see from him other than covering the opponent’s best receiver.
“Our other goal for him is, he's a good cover corner,” Smith said, “but now it's time to not just be a good cover corner. Go make plays, get the ball back, make interceptions, force fumbles, make big, game-changing plays where it impacts the game and gets the ball back to our offense.”