It wasn’t so long ago that the first thing college football fans would point out about Northwestern was its woeful pass defense. In October 2011, NU surrendered 391 passing yards and blew a late lead in a four-point loss to Illinois. That season, the Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in yards allowed per play and 10th in pass efficiency defense. NU’s reputation as a team that couldn’t defend the pass to save its life was well-earned.
But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, it’s looking like the secondary will be one of NU’s strongest position groups. Let’s discuss the reasons. Senior Ibraheim Campbell, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by coaches and media in 2013, is one of the best safeties in the conference. Junior Traveon Henry, who is likely to start alongside Campbell, played well in 10 games last season before getting hurt. That’s a formidable duo that stacks up favorably with most safety tandems across the league. Having already played two seasons together, Campbell and Henry could be even better – or at the very least, just as good – in 2014.
(This analysis assumes senior Jimmy Hall will play outside linebacker, the position he has been lining up at in spring practice, this season)
The frontrunners to start at cornerback are junior Nick VanHoose and sophomore Matt Harris. There were big expectations for VanHoose entering last season; most expected he’d play so well, there’d be no doubt by season’s end that he was NU’s best cornerback. VanHoose started all 12 games; recorded 61 tackles five tackles for loss and forced a fumble; and lead the team with eight pass breakups. He had a decent season. But VanHoose didn’t take the massive leap forward many expected he would. There were times when VanHoose was effective in coverage and tackled well in the open field, and others when he got beat by opposing wideouts.
Opposite VanHoose, Harris, who took over as the starter after Dwight White got burned on a touchdown in NU’s week-8 loss to Minnesota, was named to ESPN.com’s Big Ten All-Freshman team. He started and played well in the final five games of the season – even though there were instances when bigger receivers were able to overpower him. Harris did enough in his five starts to establish himself as the top candidate to start at one of the two cornerback spots, but he will have to fight off senior Daniel Jones – a starter at the beginning of last season, who is recovering from an ACL tear – in preseason camp.
If everyone plays to the level they’re capable of, that’s a pretty good starting group, I’d say. NU also has quality depth at corner and safety. Assuming Harris and VanHoose win the two starting corner spots, NU can use White and Jones in its nickel package. It’s not clear how early enrollee Parrker Westphal will be used this season (or if he will be used at all), but the fact NU has enough talent at corner that a highly coveted former four-star recruit might not even crack the two-deep is astounding. At safety, redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike, another heralded former recruit, should see some playing time this season. Fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Queiro could win the other backup safety spot.
Are any of NU’s other position groups better than the secondary? That’s not an easy question, and we won’t know the answer until the season. With limited knowledge – we haven’t even made it to preseason camp yet – I think it’s reasonable to assert the secondary is one of NU’s strongest positions. NU’s running backs will be pretty good, too. That group will feature Venric Mark, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley, Warren Long and possibly one of two highly-touted true freshmen, Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson. Which group ends up being better remains to be seen.
What’s important is that NU’s secondary is even in consideration for “best position group.” NU’s pass defense used to be the butt of Illinois fans’ jokes. It once seemed a foregone conclusion that opposing teams would light up the Wildcats through the air. Now the secondary could be the position group NU leans on to get stops late in games. At the very least, it seems unlikely fans will describe NU, first and foremost, as a team that can’t defend the pass.