Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jul 1, 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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Writing about Nick VanHoose’s need to step up is something I could have (and probably did do) done last preseason. He is the best cornerback in a team bereft of great ones, playing on a squad notoriously ineffective at stopping the pass in recent seasons, particularly in hotly contested games. Northwestern needs VanHoose to be excellent, in many of the same ways it did last season. This argument has no time stamp.

So forgive me for rehashing the obvious, but I’d rather scream the message in front of your face as loud as possible than ignore it altogether. Northwestern’s pass defense was better last season than it was in 2011. The numbers say so: after giving up an average of 8.5 yards per attempt last season, the worst mark in the Big Ten, the Wildcats firmed up and slashed that figure by nearly two yards. VanHoose was one of the biggest reasons why, and maintaining last season’s progress will require him to reprise his consistent cornerbacking efforts.

I’m confident the secondary will be better than last season, and that VanHoose’s continued development will help propel its upward trajectory. But to understand why his corner play is so crucial this season, let’s start off with a brief discussion of the rest of the secondary – its weaknesses, strengths, and everything else an opposing team might ever care to learn about.

Both safety spots are well accounted for. Ibraheim Campbell is an All-Conference talent with plenty of physical and skills-based potential left to tap. Traveon Henry shined in spots last season; there were also numerous lapses that can’t go unmentioned, sure. But all in all, Henry’s true freshman season was better than most.

You know the deal with the other cornerback spot: a swath of unproven players, which pretty much breaks down into Daniel Jones, Dwight White, Jarrell Williams, C.J. Bryant and a bunch of freshmen. Someone will climb the depth chart in preseason camp having earned the starting nod.

Whoever that someone is, he won’t be nearly as proven or as predictably reliable as VanHoose. If there’s a critique of VanHoose, it’s his inability to stay on the field – he’s battled injuries in both of his first two seasons. There’s a point where a pattern of injuries codifies into the universally feared “injury prone” label, but I don’t think VanHoose is there yet. He missed three games last season, and suffered another injury in 2011 that didn’t burn any games off his eligibility quota.

Staying on the field this season will stand as one of Northwestern’s – and the secondary it fields – ancillary concerns. The other cornerback spot is the biggest internal issue, and opposing coaches will be eager to exploit it by devising pass plays targeted towards that side of the field. It’s one of the most elementary concepts in offensive football: keep the ball away from the opposing team’s best defenders. Go after the weakest link. Attack the soft spot.

In Northwestern’s case in 2012, that soft spot in the pass defense will be the CB position opposite VanHoose. The Wildcats may never find a perfect fit for that position this season; it’s entirely possible teams will hurl completed pass after completed pass to the side of the field left unoccupied by VanHoose. Some football problems are too foundationally entrenched, some positions too lacking in proven talent, to find a valuable solution. The Wildcats need to prepare for this.

If the other side of the fortress breaks down, Northwestern won’t be nearly as prepared to bandage the air-raid carnage all but guaranteed to ensue. VanHoose is the only proven entity Northwestern has at cornerback this season, a second-year starter with all the physical and mental tools to garner All-Conference recognition. His lockdown coverage is one of the assumptions Northwestern can make about its cornerback position.

Without him, both sides of the field turn into the dilemma you currently see at one cornerback spot. Northwestern’s coverage would go from “easy to pick apart” on one side of the field to “backyard pitch and catch” on both sides.

The potential for pass defense lapses is imminent, no question. There is no golden formula. Within his own realm of coverage responsibility, VanHoose might have something close: the ability to take his receiver out of the game from start to finish.

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