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InsideNU Debate: Which Is Northwestern's Most Improved Position Unit?

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn) and Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Soon the Wildcats will have finished spring practice, another dismal lull of football nothingness will span the early summer months, and before you know it, Northwestern will be lining up for preseason workouts and getting set for the August 31. Season opener at Cal. Various players have risen and fallen since New Year’s Day, the last time the Wildcats convened for an official game, and spring practice accentuated many of these changes in seven-on-sevens and individual position drills.

Football rosters are constantly evolving beasts, and by the time Northwestern starts gearing up for another season this August, more change will further morph this roster into coach Pat Fitgerald and his staff’s ideal game day outfit. We can’t see into the future – only the small light at the end of the tunnel that is Saturday’s final spring practice. Before the Wildcats conclude spring workouts, it’s high time we take stock of the biggest positive change on a unit level of analysis. Kevin and I have each selected our “most improved units” – the position group that, since the end of bowl season, has progressed in the most obvious way. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments. En Garde:

Chris's Take: Running Backs

I’m a perfectionist. It's an affliction. I never settle for the plainly good, but strive for the unattainably great. Use that knowledge as a framing tool to understand my perspective on Northwestern’s running backs, because I’m going to go ahead and assume most people who saw the bolded word “running backs” are probably scratching their heads or hurriedly pulling up the Wildcats’ 2012 rushing statistics or (most likely) calling me a bunch of really mean things.

Running back was the least of Northwestern’s problems last season, and I’m not afraid to acknowledge that there are plenty of other positions whose improvements could more directly improve the Wildcats’ fortunes this season. Finishing fourth among Big Ten teams in both average rushing yards per game (225.54) and yards per attempt (4.93) isn’t just good. It’s a huge bump from the 3.75 yards per play the Wildcats put up in 2011. The running game made a huge leap last season; is there any room left for improvement?

I say yes – for two main reasons. A large portion of Mark’s 1,366 rushing yards (5th in the Big Ten) came off option read plays, wherein quarterback Kain Colter would flip Mark the ball just before an oncoming defender forced him to make a pitch-or-run decision. The comfort and developmental chemistry required to run this play smoothly and effectively is immense, and Mark and Colter managed to put everything together quite nicely last season.

An offseason spent working on timing and communication will enhance an already explosive option dynamic, and Mark could easily eclipse his rushing total from last season.

The risk is that the opposite – Regression, the euphemistic statisticians’ way of saying you took a big step back – is just as easily foreseeable: Teams will have an entire season of game film to draw on, and Colter and Mark will see all kinds of different defensive looks this season as coordinators get creative and work frenetically to stifle the option partnership that tore up Big Ten defenses on a weekly basis last season.

My second argument is more convincing. Even if Mark regresses, and he will have much more talent and depth around him in 2013. The first name you need to know is redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley, a high school quarterback out of Forney (TX) who’s done nothing but shine as a dynamic option runner. Buckley doesn’t have Mark’s breakaway speed, but his elusiveness and ability to evade defenders in the open field are just as dangerous.

Speed and agility are always nice assets to have, and that’s exactly what you get with Buckley and Mark. Redshirt freshman Malin Jones offers a profile of skills closer to what we like to call an “every-down” back. He’s quick and explosive and agile and, did we mention, fast -- but at 6’0”, 205-pounds Jones is just as likely to physically punish defenders as he is put you on ice skates with a devastating Mark-esque juke. He was one of the biggest highlights of Northwestern’s 2012 recruiting class and Jones is more than ready to step in this season.

The majority of snaps will go to Mark, just like last year. Trumpy will bruise and batter opposing tacklers in short yardage situations and the new guys will complement an already sturdy backfield allotment. A gradually evolving option attack should elevate Northwestern’s most effective offensive staple and if the freshly-arriving pieces fall into place just right, this group can far exceed last season’s output.

Kevin's take: Secondary

This year, the Northwestern secondary can't really go anywhere but up. The Wildcats have finished last in the league in pass defense the past two years and despite having playmakers in place, they struggled with inconsistency. However, the unit improved at the end of last year, and this year, it finally looks poised to take the next step.

“I think we’ve been getting better every year,” safety Ibraheim 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.”

Obviously you can't expect Campbell to say much else, and in spring ball, there's a lot of untempered optimism. However, this year, the piece are in place for NU's secondary to go from a glaring weakness to a potential strength. There are still some holes, but things are certainly looking up for a unit that desperately needs to bring up its game.

We'll start at safety, the better of the two positions at this point. Campbell, a junior, will begin his third year as the starter. He has steadily improved since his days as a redshirt freshman and has turned raw talent into consistently solid play. He'll be a contender for preseason All-Big Ten lists, thanks to his big-hitting abilities and his nose for the ball. Opposite Campbell will likely be Traveon Henry, who played mostly on special teams last season, but showed off why he has the potential to be a star in the future. He's a big hitter, and showcased that on kickoff coverage, but didn't know the defense well enough to attack the way he could on special teams. Now, he's ready to bring those abilities to safety.

“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.”

Behind Henry is Jimmy Hall, who will see a lot of time at safety, but will also see times situationally as an outside linebacker and a nickelback. Like Henry and Campbell, he's known as a big hitter — he hit Kyle Prater so hard in practice last year that Prater puked. The No. 4 safety will likely by Davion Fleming, who started the opener last year. That's a measure of just how much talent this unit has.

At cornerback, there are more concerns, but we'll start out with the positive: Nick VanHoose. He broke out as a redshirt freshman last year and looks poised to be a leader on the defense for the next three seasons. He's impressive in coverage and has a nose for the ball, and he'll need to be sharp again as the corner opposite him develops. That side is a bit more muddled. With VanHoose out this spring, Daniel Jones and C.J. Bryant have been taking snaps with the first team. Jones has the most experience, but he struggled at times last year, while NU is looking for Bryant to make the jump from backup to potential starter. Up-and-comer Dwight White will also be in the conversation.

But regardless of what happens at corner, NU will have legitimate options at that spot, along with a budding star at safety and possible All-Big Ten contenders at the other safety and corner spots. That's clear progress, and it should finally help NU's pass defense escape the Big Ten's cellar, and by quite a bit.