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Spring Secondary Breakdown: Can Ibraheim Campbell Lead A Young Group?

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The perception of Northwestern’s 2012 pass defense is different from the reality of Northwestern’s 2012 pass defense. How? For the people who comfortably looked up basic counting statistics, saw the Wildcats ranked last in pass yards allowed per game and conveniently presumed the secondary was essentially the same unit as 2011, it was just another typical porous Northwestern pass defense of recent ilk. I heard this criticism on numerous occasions from various Big Ten commentators, and in some ways, it’s not wrong. A more reliable statistic, average yards per play, tells a different story. Whereas Northwestern allowed an average of 8.5 yards per pass in 2011, last season it cut that number down to 6.6, the sixth-best mark among Big Ten teams.

But beyond the statistical discrepancy, and the realization that per-game aggregate yard statistics are, frankly, useless, there’s a reason why this pass defense was better than the generally negative public view. The group that entered spring practice last season with one year of combined starting experience (Ibraheim Campbell) slowly but surely developed into an encouraging and promising proposition. The groundwork has been laid; the Wildcats pass defense is ready to shake the dour perception in 2013.

Returning starters: S Ibraheim Campbell (Jr), CB Nick VanHoose (So), CB Daniel Jones (Jr)

Others returning: S Traveon Henry (So), S Joseph Jones (RS Fr), DB Joe Cannon (Jr), S Terrance Brown (RS Fr), DB Jimmy Hall (Jr), S Davion Fleming (Sr), DB Sean Oliver (RS Fr), CB Mike Eshun (Jr), CB Jarrell Williams (So), DB Troy Sheppard (RS Fr), CB C.J. Bryant (Jr), CB Dwight White (RS Fr)

Incoming recruits: S Kyle Quiero, CB Marcus McShepard, CB Keith Watkins, S Godwin Igwebuike*, CB Matt Harris

Biggest Spring Question: Can Ibraheim Campbell Lead A Young Group?

The same could be asked of last season’s pass defense, a group that returned Ibraheim Campbell at safety, and no other starting experience. The young qualifier is somewhat misleading as it pertains to 2012, in a sense, because seniors Quinn Evans and Demetrius Dugar received significant playing time throughout the season, and Jared Carpenter won over starting duty at safety along Campbell after beginning the season as a key reserve.

This season, the youth moniker couldn’t be more accurate. To wit: Vanhoose (So) and Campbell (Jr) and Jones (So) are the only sure things on this unit, and even that presumed starting trio is not a foregone conclusion. The rest – who will pair with Campbell at safety? Can Jones hang onto his starting spot? Where, exactly, is the depth coming from – is filled with questions. But these aren’t entirely bad questions to have. In fact, despite its overwhelmingly young flavor, it is easy to get excited about this unit’s future, once you dig through the misguiding per-game statistical ugliness and recent reputation.

If this group hopes to finish the season among the Big Ten’s best secondaries, with a transformed national reputation, Campbell will have to continue the impressive developmental curve he established two years ago and elevated to new heights last season. He was named an All Big-Ten honoree not only for his consistent pass-defending efforts (his 12 pass breakups tied for the seventh-highest single-season total in NU history), but also for the way he contributed in stopping the run (Campbell finished 20th in the Big Ten with an average of 6.85 tackles per game). Campbell’s individual play rubbed off on his younger counterparts – VanHoose in particular – and veterans like Evans, Carpenter and Fleming helped him become the undisputed leader of the secondary, and one of the strongest voices in the entire locker room.

This year, Campbell’s leadership qualities will be even more important. One of the biggest precursors for Campbell’s 2012 breakout was the poise and maturity he showed in spring workouts. He took a leading role in secondary drills and made it clear from the start, that this was, indeed, his unit. It will be interesting to see how he approaches spring workouts this time around, even if I already know what to expect. You’ll find Campbell leading by example, marshaling his teammates around the back end of the defense, maintaining a sense of urgency and attention to detail, all the while doing all the little things that allowed him to take command last season.

Position Battles

(CB): Daniel Jones vs. ?: The improvement from 2012 to last season was undeniable. Daniel Jones made real strides, both in coverage and open-field tackling. I don’t know if Jones’ starting job is “under fire”, but if we’re choosing between him and VanHoose, I think we can all agree on which player has more to worry about heading into spring practice. The list of candidates to unseat Jones, if he is to be unseated, is in flux – Dwight White has surfaced as a strong contender, C.J. Bryant has a puncher’s chance, Mike Eshun has drawn positive reviews from his play in practice, and the remaining pool can be best summed up as one collective long shot.

I have another player in mind. The biggest competition – and I withhold the right to revoke this claim, depending on redshirt decision-making – is incoming freshman Keith Watkins. You won’t find him at spring practice, and a cursory Google search may lead you to believe Watkins is a running back by trade, but he will, suit up at cornerback for the Wildcats, and if he brings all the athleticism and natural football instincts you see on tape to summer workouts, Jones will have a real challenge on his hands.

Of the players competing this spring, White has the best chance of unseating Jones. I heard nothing but positive commentary on his scout team work, and his athleticism is manifested on the field. If he doesn't win the starting job outright, White will at least press for first team reps and serve as the best and most capable fill-in corner on the roster.

(S) Traveon Henry vs. Davion Fleming vs. Jimmy Hall : The dynamic forged between Campbell and Carpenter last season served as a strong base for the pass defense’s cohesion and growth – particularly towards the end of the season and in the Gator Bowl. Campbell is back, but Carpenter (Gator Bowl MVP) leaves behind an important opening. Fleming and Hall entered last Spring as the most realistic options to land that second safety spot, but Fleming’s inconsistency and Hall’s inability to fully grasp the nuances of coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s coverages pushed Carpenter to the forefront. Rightfully so.

One year later, Hall and Fleming will have every opportunity to make another run at the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Only now, Henry – a promising, hard-hitting, active safety who made equal contributions on defense and special teams last season – is another formidable obstacle to overcome. He showed great signs last season, and could make a tantalizing pairing alongside Campbell. On the other hand, Hall made huge strides at the tail end of last season, and looks in far better shape to win the job than he did at this time last year. The caveat with Hall is that he could wind up at Nickelback or outside linebacker.

That leaves Fleming, a senior who enters his final season with a Carpenter-like outlook. Hall and Henry are, if we’re being totally honest, probably better-suited for the job. On the surface, that certainly seems to be the case, but then again we were saying the same exact things about Carpenter last year, and the end result was Carpenter’s experience and savvy winning out over his eminently better-qualified competition. His rise to starterdom should give Fleming hope he can beat out his younger and more athletic challengers. Fleming will have his chance to make an impression in spring workouts, but nothing will be decided just yet (same goes for the cornerback battle).

Our best guess at the depth chart

1. Nick VanHoose
2. Daniel Jones
3. Keith Watkins
4. C.J. Bryant
5. Mike Eshun
6. Jarrell Williams
7. Dwight White
8. Sean Oliver
9. Troy Sheppard

1. Ibraheim Campbell
2. Traveon Henry
3. Jimmy Hall
4. Davion Fleming
5. Godwin Igwebuike*
6. Joseph Jones
7. Terrance Brown
8. Joe Cannon

*Igwebuike has not decided whether he will play running back or safety.

*Another note: Cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Jarrell Williams will not participate in spring workouts.

Check out our analysis on the other positions: Quarterback, Defensive line