Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jun 26, 2013

The discrete components that mix an mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.

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For a number of different reason, betting on potential is a dangerous way to evaluate a player’s next season. Traveon Henry offered plenty of it last season, from his recklessly courageous special teams play, to the sporadic bursts of playing time in the early weeks, to his abrupt insertion into a starter’s workload during the Indiana game after Ibraheim Campbell was lost to an injury. People expect more from Henry this season, naturally, because what other opinion are we supposed to have about a true freshmen who unveils immense athletic potential, improves steadily throughout spring practice and will enter preseason camp as the obvious frontrunner to win a starting safety spot.

If you’re excited about Henry’s sophomore season, the upward curve of success he brings into his second year of college football, it’s not difficult to understand why. Henry should take a massive leap forward this season. He should immediately become one of Northwestern’s more valuable playmakers on defense. He should jump in next to Campbell and forge a symbiotic pass-defense relationship from week 1 on. All the positive precursors are checked; Henry should be great.

He sort of needs to be, actually. When you look at this year’s pass defense, only two starters can be considered anything close to proven entities: cornerback Nick VanHoose and Campbell. The only qualifier I have for VanHoose goes back to last season, when he missed some time due to injury. I have no such questions for Campbell; in fact, I expect him to be in the running for a first team All-Big Ten spot all season long. He’s that good.

The rest of the secondary is less secure, starting with the still-undecided cornerback spot opposite VanHoose. The list of candidates – Daniel Jones, Jarrell Williams, Dwight White, C.J. Bryant, (freshmen) Keith Watkins, Marcus McShepard, Kyle Queiro and Matt Harris – don’t lack for quantity as much as they do confidence-inspiring ability. My sense, from watching these players either last season, during spring practice or on high school tapes, is that the second corner spot will continue to be a work in progress; if given the choice, opposing quarterbacks will happily look away from VanHoose and fling passes to their side of the field.

Only one half of the safety equation has any serious questions to answer about its long-term sustainability. Henry has the potential to be a very good player in Northwestern’s secondary for several years down the road, but before we can conclude as much, he needs to give us a reason to. Henry needs to show last season’s explosive special teams coverage and rangy secondary play can be congealed into a consistent, controlled, season-long package.

I saw a lot of good things from Henry last season, and even more in spring practice. The natural next step is applying his talents over an entire season. Henry still has some rough edges of his game to sand off, and it’d be foolish to presume he won’t make at least a few mistakes early on. It’s all part of the process of becoming a full-time starter.

Remember: Campbell himself was a green redshirt freshman seeing a college field for the first time not too long ago. Two years later, it’s Henry’s turn to prove he’s starter’s material.

  • SB

    Is it fair to say that Campbell is better suited to the FS position and Henry for SS?

    • Chris Johnson

      I’m not sure. Why would you suggest that distinction?

      • SB

        Henry seems like an athletic freak that could be great in run support and some blitz packages. I don’t know if NU uses safeties in these specific roles as more defenses interchange the safety positions rather than having one pure SS and one pure FS. Just curious as to whether there are roles like this in our defensive scheme that these two are better suited for.

        • Chris Johnson

          Both players have the capacity to help out in the run game, and your judgement on Henry feels just about right. I would be cautious before labeling either player by the traditional safety designations. Both can do a lot of different things, both are superb athletes and both will help out stopping the run. Preseason practice might give us a better idea.

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