During Traveon Henry’s senior year of high school, the Northwestern secondary had problems. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten, giving up 232.2 yards per game, despite having future star safety Ibraheim Campbell and established players like safety Brian Peters, cornerback Jordan Mabin.
Henry watched at home, and looking back, saw one key difference between then and now.
“Before I saw that they had the opportunities to make them, but now guys are actually making them, and that’s one big difference I see in the secondary,” he said. “Just at the point of attack, that was one thing. I’ve seen that improve much more.”
However, the improvements didn’t show up on the stat sheet. NU ranked last in the league again, giving up 250.5 yards per game. Regardless, optimism is high, and while there is still a major void at one of the cornerback positions, the Wildcats’ safeties sure give NU fans reason to be optimistic that the pass defense will finally improve.
Campbell, a junior, will be one of the leaders of the defense, along with defensive end Tyler Scott. He started as a freshman on that 2011 team and has seen the NU secondary’s whole journey — from disappointment, to promising but faulty, to breakout contender.
“I think we’ve been getting better every year,” Campbell said. “Guys are getting more comfortable with the defense and are out there making plays more and more. I think we’ve got the potential to get better.”
For the third straight year, Campbell will have a different co-starter at safety. His freshman year, it was Peters. Last year, it was a combination of Davion Fleming and Jared Carpenter. This year, it will most likely be Henry, with Jimmy Hall — who can be used situationally as a nickelback and an outside linebacker — also playing a large role.
After impressive play on special teams — and a little bit on defense — last year, Henry was fast-tracked into the safety spot opposite Campbell this spring, taking the first-team snaps. Given his talent, it’s not a surprise. Coach Pat Fitzgerald likes a player who “goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody’s lips off,” and Henry certainly fits that mold.
“I think (hitting) is one positive I bring to my game,” Henry said.
But in addition to the ability to hit, he also has a great nose for the ball and an aggressiveness necessary to be a playmaker. He showcased that skill set in last Saturday’s spring practice, leveling a big hit on running back Malin Jones.
“It was actually, they ran an option play — that’s one of the plays that they key on,” he said of the hit. “I just came downhill and waited for that pitch, and boom.”
Henry showcased that hitting ability on special teams last year, but didn’t have the experience to do it consistently at safety. Now, he’s ready to bring his big-hitting ways to the defense.
“I would say the biggest thing is he’s just more comfortable with the defense, so that makes him able to play faster and to fly around and make more plays — more than he was making last year,” Campbell said. “So that’s going to benefit our defense a lot more.”
It may seem rash considering the secondary’s struggles the past two years, but the Wildcats could have one of the best sets of safeties in the Big Ten. Henry and Campbell are both talented enough to raise the unit to new heights, but Hall is also an impressive up-and-comer who — you guessed it — is known for his big hits on the defense (he made wide receiver Kyle Prater puke last year in practice because he hit him so hard). Consider this: the talent level is up so much from last year that the starter opposite Campbell in the 2012 opener, Davion Fleming, could be the No. 4 safety for this year’s opener.
There are still questions about experience at safety, and there is still a big void at the cornerback spot opposite Nick VanHoose, so NU’s secondary still has a lot to prove. But if the talent on display this spring is any indication, NU’s stay in the cellar of the pass defense rankings could soon be over.