We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
Northwestern's pass defense was its biggest flaw last season, but despite what the numbers said, Ibraheim Campbell saw reason for optimism. This will be his third year starting at safety for the Wildcats, and this spring, he noted that he thinks the secondary has improved each year he has been in Evanston. His redshirt freshman year, the unit vastly underachieved despite having Brian Peters at safety and Jordan Mabin at corner. As a sophomore, he came into his own, but led a unit that had a lot of youth and not a lot of talent. This year, Campbell is ready to be the star on a unit that looks like its finally ready to jump out of the cellar of Big Ten pass defenses. And finally, the numbers should show that improvement.
Campbell burst onto the scene in 2011 as the the safety opposite Brian Peters, and while he was inconsistent, he showed a knack for getting to the ball and making big plays. He gained a reputation as a big hitter with game-changing potential, but he didn't always live up to that potential in his first season, which is to be expected. However, he became a much more consistent player as a sophomore, leading a secondary that struggled to find consistency from its personnel elsewhere — even the one other consistent player, corner Nick VanHoose, dealt with injuries.
This year, Campbell is expected to fill that leadership role yet again, but with a younger, more talented teammate at safety. Traveon Henry showed his big play potential on special teams last year, and now he gets the chance to prove it as a full-time starter on the defense. In many ways, his playing style — and his hype — are similar to Campbell's.
While the secondary should be vastly improved at the other positions, it's important that Campbell remains as dominant as he was last season. Henry will have some growing pains as he adjusts to his role, as will the corner opposite VanHoose. NU needs Campbell to always be at his best, particularly for the times when some other things in the secondary break down. Campbell has received a lot of preseason first team All-Big Ten attention this year and he should be a solid NFL Draft pick in a couple years. The Wildcats need him to play like it this season.