This is the latest in our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it’s just like it sounds — we’ll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. Next up is the secondary.
Key Losses: S Jared Carpenter, CB Demetrius Dugar
Returning Starters: S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose
Other Key Returning Players: S Traveon Henry, S Jimmy Hall, S Davion Fleming, CB Daniel Jones, CB C.J. Bryant, CB Dwight White
Why 2012 Was Better: For much of the season, the secondary had a lot of weaknesses, but it also showed improvement at times, and that was most evident in the Gator Bowl. Northwestern had a decent safety combination figured out in the bowl game with Ibraheim Campbell and Jared Carpenter, and the cornerbacks held their own. That was a far cry from just a month-and-a-half prior, when cornerbacks Demetrius Dugar and Daniel Jones struggled mightily against Michigan.
No, 2012 wasn't great at times, but it was also a better secondary than the year before, and when Nick VanHoose wasn't injured, it was a respectable group. There is more experience and more talent in 2013, but if the Wildcats can't put all of that together, it may be tough to find tangible evidence that 2013's unit is better than 2012's.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: I'll start this as I ended the last segment: the 2013 team has more talent and more experience. While NU finally figured things out at safety at the end of the year — Carpenter even won the Gator Bowl MVP award — this group of safeties should be much better. Campbell is a possible All-Big Ten candidate and there's no reason to think he won't continue to be a steady force in the defensive backfield. Traveon Henry, who looks like the starter at the opposite safety spot, showed promise as a true freshman last year and looks poised to break out in 2013. He'll split time with Jimmy Hall, who is a solid player and will also see some time at nickelback.
The corners will be the wildcard to determine whether this unit will truly be better in 2013. As long as VanHoose can stay healthy, there's no reason to believe he won't be even better in 2013 after a breakout season in 2012. The question is opposite VanHoose. Daniel Jones, C.J. Bryant and Dwight White are all battling for that last starting spot. Whoever wins the job has to be able to step up so as not to leave a giant hole in the secondary. If they can, it's tough to see how this unit won't be better.
This Year or Last Year: This Year
This spring, Campbell noted that he thinks the secondary has improved every year he's been at NU. The stats didn't back that up last year, but they should in 2013. There's just too much talent for this group to not be better. Assuming Henry makes the transition to a starting job as well as he's expected to, the Wildcats could end up with one of the best safety duos in the Big Ten, especially by the end of the season. Consider this: last year's opening week starter, Davion Fleming, is the No. 4 safety on the depth chart right now. That's more a testament to young talent getting better than it is a knock on Fleming.
There certainly is some uncertainty at the corner spot opposite VanHoose. Jones struggled a lot last season, but has the most experience. Bryant didn't see much meaningful action, while White redshirted. Expect this battle to go well into fall camp, but all three should see time next year. Even given the uncertainty, whoever ends up here should be able to do a better job than the rotating group of starters last year. And with a potential lockdown corner on the other side, and a great group of safeties, it's tough to see this unit being worse in 2013.