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Unit Spotlight: Secondary--Why Ibraheim Campbell needs to be a leader

Last week, ESPN’s Big Ten Blog continued its “Home run summer” series, which spotlights “a player or group of player from each Big Ten team who needs a home run type of summer before preseason camp begins.” Blogger Adam Rittenberg targeted Northwestern Friday with the contention that “The veterans on defense” are the players most in need of major improvements before the fall. Rittenberg argues that what plagued NU last season more than anything was miscommunication and lack of leadership on defense and that players such as junior defensive end Tyler Scott and sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell will need to fill that leadership void. It’s a short piece, but it’s definitely worth a read.

With summer officially underway, I thought it might be a good idea to delve deeper into this idea of highlighting a particular unit, player, coach, group of players that really needs to step it up before the Wildcats hit camp. I agree with Rittenberg’s general premise that the defense could use some wholesale improvements this summer, but I’m going to take it further and zero in on one specific unit. So without further ado, here is my revised version of ESPN Big Ten Blog’s home run summer—Northwestern edition.

Unit to Focus on: the Secondary

The numbers don’t lie: the Wildcats fielded the Big Ten’s worst pass defense last season. They gave up an average of 245.6 yards through the air, and were unable to stop even some of the conference’s flawed, ineffective passers. Worse, the pass defense always seemed to falter when it could least afford to, most notably at the end of games, and usually resulting in highly disheartening, gut-wrenching losses. NU’s early season test at Illinois, a 38-35 loss, typifies this narrative more than any other game, but there were countless other situations when opposing quarterbacks were able to shred NU’s ineffective pass defense, finding receivers left and right, hitting short slants, slip screens, deep fades and marching their offense up the field with little resistance.

Losing a first team All Big Ten safety, Brian Peters, along with cornerback Jordan Mabin, an All-Big Ten honoree, won’t quell any fears about a repeat performance in the defensive backfield this season. Peters was the unquestioned leader in the secondary, the glue that held in tact an otherwise unorganized group, and was often singlehandedly responsible for preventing big plays. Mabin was the Wildcats’ best cover corner, often charged with the responsibility of locking down an opposing team’s biggest receiving threat. Without these two four-year stalwarts, the secondary’s lack of leadership, not to mention experience, could be a startling reality for the young players who fill in this season.

Which is precisely why I keyed in on the secondary as the Wildcats’ biggest area of need heading into preseason camp. Let’s start by taking a look at the projected starters.

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Cornerbacks: Nick VanHoose, RS Freshman; Quinn Evans, Fifth-year senior (officially announced transfer from Stanford on June 11)

VanHoose got off to a promising start at last year’s preseason camp in Kenosha before sustaining a hamstring injury, deliberating a late-season return, then opting to redshirt. Evans, meanwhile, missed all of last season with injuries and has only played in a reserve role for the Cardinal.

Safeties: Ibraheim Campbell, Sophomore; Davion Fleming; Sophomore

Fleming was a key reserve last season and appeared in all 13 games. Campbell’s 101 tackles led the team last season, and he continued to improve as the season went on.

For a more in-depth look at each player, check out Inside Northwestern’s unit breakdowns: Secondary 

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As you can see, there’s not a whole lot of experience, or proven talent, at either cornerback or safety. It’s quite the eclectic group, what with one player with no game experience, two more accustomed to backup roles and the apparent leader, just a second-year starter himself, still trying to master coverage concepts and basic pass defense principles.

This will be a work in progress, to be sure, but the maturation process must begin over the summer. It’s crucial that the secondary newcomers enter camp having honed their respective physical tools, field awareness and schematic principles. None of these players have played enough together to think that their collective transition to starterdom will come without its share of challenges. Miscommunication, unfamiliarity and lack of spatial awareness are just some of the hurdles that could spell doom for the defensive backfield this fall.

With just one year of experience, Campbell needs to lead in 2012.

These problems will exist to some degree, whether or not the new faces can acclimate themselves to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s system in a seamless and wholly problem-free way. The challenge is minimizing the intra-team mistakes and focusing on stopping the opposition. In other words, this secondary simply can’t afford to beat itself, because its opponents, some of them elite offensive outfits like Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa, present immense challenges in and of themselves.

The key to an improved secondary lies in the mind, heart and leadership ability of Campbell. While Evans, technically speaking, is the greybeard in the secondary, Campbell earned his teammates respect with his sterling performance last season. He will be counted upon to lead not only by example, but vocally, in a way that his partners in the defensive backfield, VanHoose, Evans and Fleming, respect and can agree with. Leaders aren’t crowned in a day, and Campbell is still learning the defense himself, but a proactive, focused approach this summer is a good way to start.

If Campbell sets the tone, it only makes sense for Fleming, VanHoose and Evans to adopt the same mindset. A unified, cohesive unit led by Campbell may not inspire fear in the hearts of Big Ten quarterbacks, but it’s the best, most effective way to remedy lass season’s pass defense woes.

The Big Ten sustained an exodus, of sorts, in losing many of its top receivers from last season, including Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, Michigan’s Junior Hemingway, Wisconsin’s Nick Toon, Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins, Iowa’s Marvin McNutt and Jeremy Ebert. It’s a long list of departures, an adieu en masse of upper-echelon, big-play talent, yet one that by no means precludes the emergence of a group of similarly talented, productive wideouts this fall. The Wildcats’ young secondary will be tested throughout conference play, but perhaps the unit’s most daunting challenge lies in the season’s final stretch, when it faces in succession Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. Each game carries with it a unique set of challenges, and a well-orchestrated, functional secondary guided by Campbell gives the Wildcats their best chance at prevailing, and in turn, preventing the expiration of their consecutive bowl streak.