It's our final post-spring unit breakdown... the secondary.
Returning starters: CB Nick VanHoose (So), S Ibraheim Campbell (Jr)
Others returning: CB C.J. Bryant (Jr), CB Daniel Jones* (Jr), CB Dwight White (RS Fr), CB Jarrell Williams (So), S Traveon Henry (So), S Jimmy Hall (Jr), S Davion Fleming* (Sr), S Terrance Brown (RS Fr), DB Joe Cannon (Jr), DB Mike Eshun (Jr), DB Sean Oliver (RS Fr), DB Jordan Perkins (So), DB Troy Sheppard (RS Fr)
* indicates some starting experience
* Igwebuike could also play running back
Depth Chart Projection
CB — C.J. Bryant OR Daniel Jones OR Dwight White
S — Ibraheim Campbell, Davion Fleming
S — Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall
CB — Nick VanHoose, Bryant OR Jones OR White
Explaining the Depth Chart
Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose are set. Traveon Henry will likely start, though Jimmy Hall will push him and will get significant playing time — some at safety, some at nickelback and maybe even a little bit at outside linebacker. However, there is a pretty intense competition for the cornerback spot opposite VanHoose.
C.J. Bryant, Daniel Jones and Dwight White will all compete for the spot, and each of them brings pros and cons to the table. Jones is the only one with starting experience, but he struggled at times last year. Bryant is unproven, but viewed as a potential up-and-comer this year. Then there's White, who redshirted last year, but has impressed the coaches in the offseason and could make a run for the starting job following his redshirt year, like VanHoose did. Regardless of who wins the job, expect all three to play quite a bit, and don't expect the battle to be decided very early in fall camp.
Stock Up: Traveon Henry
After getting his feet wet freshman year, Henry looks ready to break out as a sophomore. He starred on special teams, and actually saw a decent amount of time as a backup safety late in the year. Now, he's ready to take the next step, and he's shown that this spring, taking all the snaps with the No. 1 defense. Henry is known as a big hitter, which he showcased on special teams, but now that he knows the defense better, he's able to react quicker and make better plays on the ball. Considering his talent, he has the potential to be a star down the road.
Stock Down: Davion Fleming and Daniel Jones
Fleming started NU's opener at Syracuse last year, but he eventually was replaced by senior Jared Carpenter, who was named MVP of the Gator Bowl. This year, he's been passed on the depth chart by Henry and Hall, the latter of whom he beat out for the starting job at Syracuse last year. He hasn't appeared to make up much ground in the spring. Jones has a chance to start if he can beat out Bryant and White, but he was never able to make the most of his opportunities last year, and suddenly could see a drop in playing time from his sophomore year.
Position Battle to Watch: C.J. Bryant vs. Daniel Jones vs. Dwight White
The corner spot opposite VanHoose is still very much up for grabs, and it will be throughout fall camp. The good news for NU is that the Wildcats have options here, unlike last year. Jones and Bryant are both a year older, while White looks ready to enter the fold. It's tough to judge who's ahead, because spring is more for development than deciding position battles. Bryant and Jones took first-team snaps while VanHoose was hurt, so they may be a bit ahead of White at the moment, but that's likely just due to the experience factor. White will certainly have a chance to earn the spot in the fall.
All three players have upside — Jones has the most experience, Bryant has some experience and didn't play badly when he saw the field, and White has a lot of talent and potential. However, all three have downsides, too — Jones struggled a lot, Bryant hasn't proven much and White is completely unproven. It will be interesting to see how much the experience factor plays into the equation, since Fitzgerald tends to favor experience, but also played a lot of young guys last year. Regardless of who wins the starting spot, all three will see significant playing time.
Biggest Offseason Question: Can the cornerback(s) opposite VanHoose step up?
After sitting at the bottom of the league in pass defense the last two years, is this the year the secondary finally improves? Campbell noted this spring that he thinks the unit has improved every year he's been playing, and that's true to an extent, but this might be the year the numbers finally back that up. A lot of the pieces are finally in place for the Wildcats to have a solid secondary, or at least one that isn't a liability.
If Henry lives up to the hype, the safeties have the potential to be one of the better safety duos in the Big Ten by the end of the year. Combine Henry and Campbell with Hall, and that's an impressive safety trio that nearly any Big Ten team would envy. VanHoose has his spot secured, and he could garner some All-Big Ten attention by the end of the season. For those reasons alone, NU should have a better secondary than last year, but if it wants to be good — not just "not that bad" — the corners opposite VanHoose need to step up. If doesn't matter if it's one player, or it it's a committee, but there needs to be progress there, or else it leaves a huge liability on one side of the field. Last year, miscues in the secondary cost the Wildcats some games. This year, the development of that cornerback spot could make the difference for a unit trying to step out of the Big Ten's cellar, and it could make the difference in the chase for a Legends Division Championship.