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Football Unit Rankings: No. 8, Secondary

It was just three weeks ago that we summed up our ranked list of Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Now we’re expanding our unit of analysis with a comprehensive analysis of the Wildcats’ position units. Only this time, we’re changing our fundamental criterium from “most important” to “best”. It’s extremely difficult to rank position units based on importance, simply because each unit is vital to a team’s overall performance. Any significantly weak or strong performance by one single unit can radically alter the outcome of any game, which is why it made a great deal more sense to order them with respect to their overall strength, and not their importance to the team.

As it stands, the Wildcats are still in training camp, with plenty of position battles yet to be resolved in the lead-up to the season-opener at Syracuse on Sept. 1. We have no definitive answers for who will start at every position, but after observing spring game practice and much of preseason camp, the first-team offense, defense and special teams is beginning to emerge from the competition and we feel we have a pretty decent feel for who fits where. Our projected starters may differ from what you see on gameday, but it’s nonetheless what we see as the most likely group at this point in time. So over the next nine days, in a unit-per-day release process, you should get a detailed snapshot for each unit as we approach week 1.

No. 9: Superbacks

Today we look at No. 8: Secondary

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Ibraheim Campbell is the lone proven player in NU's secondary this year. (Photo courtesy Bob Levey/Getty Images)

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Projected starters: Nick VanHoose (CB), Ibraheim Campbell (S), Davion Fleming (S), Demetrius Dugar (CB)

Challengers: Quinn Evans (CB), Jimmy Hall (S), Daniel Jones (CB), Traveon Henry (S)

Strengths

The most obvious strength in the secondary is safety Ibraheim Campbell, a sophomore who started last year as a redshirt freshman. He had some coverage breakdowns and made some freshman mistakes, but he also had 100 tackles and was a hard-hitter. As the season progressed, he improved, and now he'll be called upon as the veteran of the unit. Campbell certainly has the potential to make some All-Big Ten lists, and if he continues to make the big hits and force turnovers, he will give the secondary at least one stable area in 2012.

The rest of the secondary is very young, but it's not necessarily a big weakness to start over, as last year's unit was terrible and this year provides a chance for a fresh start. Nick VanHoose has been the biggest riser up the depth chart in the secondary since last season, breaking out in the spring and grabbing a starting spot this fall. While he was considered a front-runner following the spring, it's was a mild surprise that he was held out of NU's scrimmage on Saturday — typically a sign that a player is a lock to start — and the coaches clearly have confidence in him, even though he has never played a down of college football.

The depth for this year is also better than last season. Last year, after Jordan Mabin was hurt against Michigan State, NU was forced to put Daniel Jones into the game in his place. Jones was lit up by the Spartans' offense and was clearly not ready to play in the Big Ten. This year, however, NU's backups should be better off. Evans is a fifth-year senior transfer from Stanford, while Hall still has a chance to win the starting job. Jones should be improved from last year, as well. Overall, the secondary is inexperienced, but if it can get things together and avoid freshman mistakes like giving up big plays, it could be better than last year.

Weaknesses

On paper, this doesn't look good: NU was terrible in coverage last season and loses its two best players. The loss of Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters means this year's secondary will be very young and very inexperienced — keep in mind that, at this time last year, this year's "veteran," Ibraheim Campbell, had never played a down of college football. That's going to mean a lot of freshman mistakes and some adjusting in the early going.

NU's biggest Achilles heal in the secondary last year was giving up big plays, and with so many young guys this year, that figures to be a problem early on. The unit should figure things out down the stretch, but by then, it may be too late. NU needs to jump out early and win games in the non-conference season and early in the conference season because the schedule is soft then. However, if the secondary can't put things together by then and there are a couple of bad losses, the Wildcats could finish with a disappointing record, as the latter half of the schedule is brutal and those games will be tough even if the secondary is in good shape.

The third weakness — well, question — is whether the new guys in the secondary are actually that good. Campbell is a proven player, but the others are still unproven. VanHoose, in particular, has performed well in practice, but it's a whole new ballgame when he steps on the field against Syracuse on September 1. Dugar has some playing experience, but wasn't great in his past performances and Fleming is unproven, as well. If the secondary can't live up to the hype and build on the progress it has made in the offseason it could be another rough season for the Cats' pass defense.