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Northwestern Football Unit Breakdowns: Secondary

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Projected Starters

Ibraheim Campbell, Sophomore. Safety. 

Perhaps Northwestern’s biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball is first-team  All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, whose leadership, range and playmaking ability often saved the secondary from further humiliation last season. Campbell, who led NU with 100 tackles last season and was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, must fill the massive void left by Peters.

Last year, Campbell learned from Peters and Honorary All-Big Ten cornerback Jordan Mabin, two older, more skilled players. This season, he assumes the leadership role, which is kind of scary, given his frequent struggles in grasping coverages and schemes last season. We’ve reached the point where Campbell, an abundantly talented, but raw, developing prospect, may be the only player in this secondary who won’t get picked on by opposing quarterbacks.

The third-year-sophomore looked stronger, faster and, on the whole, better acclimated to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s schemes and defensive concepts in spring practice. Which is good news, perhaps the only good news to come out of NU defensive backs meetings and workouts this spring. Problem is, Campbell’s responsibilities will expand manifold in year two of starterdom, and that could lead to some growing pains, a sophomore slump, even.

All in all, Campbell appears ready to step up and lead this secondary. He’s as instrumental to this pass defense as Colter is to the offense. If he falters, there will be drastic, season-damaging repercussions.

Davion Fleming, Sophomore. Safety.

After appearing in all 13 games last season, Fleming proved in spring ball that he’s ready to take on a larger workload. A rangy, dynamic athlete, Fleming explodes off the snap and can match, at least physically, the Big Ten’s best wideouts stride for stride.

Fleming’s inexperience may stunt his development, as will the lack of leadership within NU’s secondary. The rising junior will practically have to learn on the fly, mostly alone, gleaning as much as he can from Campbell.

If he can combine his above-average athleticism with a better understanding of basic pass defense principles, Fleming can help Campbell and the rest of this secondary exceed its lowly preseason expectations.

Nick VanHoose. RS Freshman. Cornerback.

On the first day of NU’s annual preseason camp in Kenosha, Wisc., VanHoose pulled his hamstring. After a late-season push from Fitzgerald to use him late in the season, VanHoose opted to redshirt, saving his four years of eligibility.

He was one of the brighter spots in an otherwise lackluster slate of spring practices from the secondary, even though he found himself on the wrong end of Cameron Dickerson’s 40-yd touchdown grab in the spring game. He showcased good speed and ball skills and made a strong argument for a starting spot this season.

Inexperience aside, VanHoose is a dynamic, up-and-coming talent, a potential cornerstone in NU’s secondary.

Quinn Evans. Fifth-year senior. Cornerback.

NU got some good news last week when it learned that Evans, its second and slightly less heralded graduate transfer addition confirmed his decision to leave Stanford and would be eligible to play for the Wildcats right away.

For a secondary that lacks depth, talent and experience, this is an entirely welcome development. Evans brings an air of maturity to a unit in dire need of a calming, veteran presence. While Evans’ track record with the Cardinal is unimpressive—He redshirted in 2009, played mostly on special teams in 2010 and was injured all of last season—this secondary needs all the help it can get.

There’s really no downside to the move, especially if Evans can stay healthy and help guide this young, inexperienced group to greener pastures. He may not be a significant upgrade, but Evans is better than the next best option.

 

Backups

Demetrius Dugar, Senior. Cornerback.

Another player with tremendous athleticism, Dugar improved last season, and was impressive in his second career start at Iowa, finishing the game with six tackles and recording his first career interception. He sat out the final five games with an injury, but recovered in time for the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

He progressed during spring practice and, much like Fleming, can cover up his lack of schematic understanding with above-average athleticism. Work is yet to be done, especially when it comes to basic, fundamental pass-coverage principles and press coverage technique, but Dugar appears ready to shoulder a larger workload this season.

Jimmy Hall, Sophomore. Safety.

Former USC wideout Kyle Prater learned it the hard way: Hall is an explosive, powerful defensive force. During a late-May spring practice, Prater reached for a pass from quarterback Kain Colter. Instead of catching the ball, Prater was treated to a vicious blast from Hall, who planted his helmet squarely in the wideout’s midsection. Prater fell to his knees and revealed to everyone on hand what he had for breakfast that morning…yeah.

As this short anecdote makes unequivocally clear, Hall is, athletically speaking, capable of grappling with the Big Ten’s best wideouts. But his football IQ and scheme familiarity don’t match up with his off-the-charts athleticism, so it may be a while before he sees consistent playing time.

All in all, he’s Fleming’s main competition for a starting safety spot alongside Campbell, so he may work his way into the starting lineup at some point this season.

Jared Carpenter, Senior. Safety.

The emergence of Campbell cut into Carpenter's playing time last season. He appeared in just eight games after playing a combined 23 games the previous two seasons. The senior will provide depth behind Fleming and Campbell and should play a key reserve role this season.

Hunter Bates, Senior. Safety

Bates suffered a broken leg in the 2011 Ticket City Bowl, and his play declined last season because of it. He appeared in all 13 games last season as a key reserve and recorded 10 tackles. He's likely to play a similar backup role this season, most likely filling in for Fleming as he learns the defense.

Daniel Jones. Sophomore. Cornerback.

Thrust into the starting lineup for NU’s Nov. 26 home matchup with Michigan State, Jones looked completely overwhelmed (This play pretty much sums up Jones’ performance). Against Texas A & M, Ryan Tannehill made it a point of emphasis to throw the ball his way whenever possible.

It’s tough to say whether Jones will rebound from his underwhelming debut, but he did show improvements in spring practice and could work his way into some playing time.

C.J. Bryant. Sophomore. Cornerback. & Jarrell Williams. RS Freshman. Cornerback

Both Bryant and Williams may not play on defense this season, but they have the speed, quickness and big-play ability to make an impact on special teams.

The Others

Mike Eshun, Matt Carpenter and Joe Cannon have all shown improvement on scout team and in spring practice. Any of these three can contribute on special teams this season.

The Recruits (All star ratings according to Scout)

Terrance Brown. S, 6-1, 195 — two-star, Los Alamitos (CA)

Traveon Henry. S, 6-1, 200 — three-star, Lauderdale Lakes (FL)

Joseph Jones. S, 6-1, 200 — three-star, Plano (IL)

Dwight White. CB, 5-10, 178 — two-star, Cypress (TX)

Walk-ons

Austin Carr. S, 6-1, 195--Benicia (CA)

Concerns

Let’s be clear: this whole unit is a concern. Without Peters or Mabin, NU’s defensive backfield will become a safe haven for pass-happy offenses.

The one returning starter, Campbell, has but one year of experience and could struggle as he takes on a larger role this season. At cornerback, neither VanHoose or Evans have played a single snap of Big Ten football, and the backup situation is less than promising.

Overall, NU will try to win games this year in spite of its secondary, not because of it. With the recent proliferation of high-tempo, no-huddle offenses amongst Big Ten teams—both Iowa and Ohio State are in on the trend this season—the Wildcats pass defense will find itself in high-pressure situations all too often. Barring a miraculous change in philosophy, personnel or some combination of both, this secondary will be one of the most vulnerable in the conference.

Prognosis

NU gave up an average of 230.4 pass yards per game in conference play last season. I don’t expect that number to improve in 2012, not with the combined loss of Peters and Mabin, not with Campbell as the best returning starter and not with two starting cornerbacks that have played a combined 0 snaps for the Wildcats.

Theoretically, all signs point to a pass-defense disaster this upcoming season.