Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.
Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.
Around this time last year, Northwestern’s secondary was a treacherous prospect. Senior leaders Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin had graduated from a 2011 group that ranked near or at the bottom of every relevant conference pass defense statistic. Ibraheim Campbell was the only returning starter*. Around him stood an unproven group of corners and safeties. Transfer Quinn Evans, a backup corner who spent most of his time at Stanford on special teams, was viewed as one of the more valuable pieces in the rebuilt pass defense. Gifted but unused redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose was another. Campbell himself would have to morph into a bona fide leader and first-rate playmaker. The pass-defense picture was awash in doubt and uncertainty; there were no obvious answers.
The season played out much differently than the foreboding preseason projections would have implied. Campbell did turn himself into one of the conference’s better young DBs. VanHoose did take all his encouraging spring practice work and apply it to opposing Big Ten receivers for as long as he was able to stay on the field. There were unexpected contributions from Jared Carpenter. Demetrius Dugar held up better than expected. The 2012 pass defense was imperfect, and occasionally costly, and dumbfoundingly ineffectual against a Matt McGloin-led passing attack (he had a nice season, granted; this development will forever stretch credulity), but it held firm over the course of a 13-game game season and stood tall in enough close games to help NU claim its first bowl win in more than six decades. Northwestern finished the season ranked seventh in the Big Ten in average yards allowed per attempt (6.6); one season earlier, it allowed 8.5. To put it less analytically, that one year jump is, shall I say, a lot. The Wildcats weren’t immune to mistakes – the Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan games say otherwise. They were merely decent, which is decidedly better than the preseason outlook, and a tick or three above the Mabin/Peters-led group from a year prior.
In the midst of one year, and one recruiting class, Northwestern’s secondary has a distinctly different air about it. The liability tag, the idea NU would never be able to compete for a Big Ten championship so long as its secondary remained qualifiably impotent, is gone. In place is a strong foundation for future success, starting this year, and extending through the next few with capable DB prospects making their way to Evanston. I can’t tell if Northwestern football people are completely aware, or if the memory scar tissues of past NU secondaries is clouding their judgment, but take a look, guys: Northwestern’s secondary is legitimately good, and it’s going to stay that way for the next few years.
We begin with 2013, mostly because there’s no other place to start, really, but there’s more to it than that. Campbell is back in his leading safety spot with a real shot at challenging for All-Big Ten honors; if his freshman-to-sophomore progression told us something, it’s that Campbell is a quick learner. The next step in that progression will be aided by sophomore Traveon Henry, whose spring practice was a continuation of the raw athletic potential he flashed (mostly on special teams) in brief spurts last season. The cornerback situation for this season is less exciting, I admit, but having a healthy VanHoose on one side, and a combination of Daniel Jones, Jarrell Williams, Dwight White, C.J. Bryant or any of the four freshmen (Keith Watkins, Marcus McShepard, Matt Harris, Kyle Queiro) joining up on the other is a welcomed alteration of last season’s patchwork group – young and relatively inexperienced though it may be.
That’s just this season. The pass defense is likewise well-stocked for the future. Moving forward, as Campbell nears graduation, a score of talented youngsters will be ready to plug in the gaps. From Jordan Thomas to Watkins to Queiro to Godwin Igwebuike (position undecided; safety choice assumption mine), there is good high school talent coming through, ensured continuity to push Northwestern’s pass defense along its current forward-moving trajectory and avoid 2011-like flameouts.
The crux of this whole thing is simple: Northwestern’s secondary may not develop into an elite unit, or even NU’s own strongest position unit, this season or next season or the one after that. But it should build upon last year’s improvements over the next few seasons, with little expectation for regression in between. The bolstered depth and established template for success in 2012 creates the impression, truthful or not, that NU’s secondary is on its way to finally purging the game-blowing stigma it’s become synonymous with over the past few seasons. That is good news.
*Jared Carpenter and Demetrius Dugar had starting experience, but Campbell was the only full-time, every-game, archetypal starting player coming back last season.