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2014 spring defensive backs recap: is secondary Northwestern's best position group?

Returning starters: CB Nick VanHoose (Jr.), CB Dwight White (So.), CB Matthew Harris (So.), S Ibraheim Campbell (Sr.), S Traveon Henry (Jr.)

Others returning: CB Joe Cannon (Sr.), CB Daniel Jones (Sr.), CB Marcus McShepard (RS Fr.), CB Troy Sheppard (So.), CB Keith Watkins II (RS Fr.), CB Parrker Westphal (Fr.), CB Jarrell Williams (Jr.), S Terrance Brown (So.), S Godwin Igwebuike (RS Fr.), S Tommy Odell (RS Fr.), S Kyle Queiro (RS Fr.) 

Incoming recruits: CB Parrker Westphal

Depth chart projection 

CB – Nick VanHoose, Daniel Jones
S – Ibraheim Campbell, Godwin Igwebuike
S – Traveon Henry, Kyle Queiro
CB – Matthew Harris, Dwight White

Explaining the depth chart 

Northwestern’s defensive back depth chart hasn’t changed since the end of the 2013 season. The four players you see listed above on the first unit are the same four that started the Wildcats’ season finale against Illinois. Perhaps the most interesting secondary-related development of the spring was Jimmy Hall’s move to outside linebacker. His position switch will open up more playing time for Igwebuike and Queiro, Northwestern’s two backup safeties. Both saw plenty of action with the first team after Campbell went down with an injury in early March. Igwebuike, a former high 3-star recruit who garnered offers from Wisconsin and Nebraska, among others, was particularly impressive.

Jones sat out while rehabilitating the knee ligament tear he suffered in the Wildcats’ season opener against Cal. Harris and VanHoose are the frontrunners to earn the two starting corner spots, but Jones was one of Northwestern’s top defensive performers in preseason camp last summer. If he is healthy and back to being the player he was before the injury -- which is no sure thing, mind you – Jones could at least push Harris and VanHoose for playing time. One player not listed on the two-deep who could get some action this season is Keith Watkins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has said he is encouraged by the progress Watkins has made.

Stock up: Godwin Igwebuike

When Northwestern was recruiting Igwebuike, he was offered the choice of playing defensive back or running back. Igwebuike chose defensive back and he is comfortable with his decision. He won’t start this season, but he should see extensive action as a reserve behind Henry and Campbell. Igwebuike possesses above-average athleticism and has great instincts. When players make their first appearances in games, there is always the possibility of mental breakdowns occurring, but if Igwebuike can master the defensive scheme – and Fitzgerald said Igwebuike, like Watkins, is progressing in that respect – he will be a valuable piece in Northwestern’s secondary.

With Campbell graduating after the upcoming season, Igwebuike has an excellent shot at becoming a starter in 2015. His efforts in the spring suggest he’s ready to be a serviceable backup this season. Whether he can be more – whether he can push Henry for playing time and establish himself as one of NU’s top defensive players heading into 2015 – remains to be seen. A lot of Northwestern fans were excited when Igwebuike committed to Northwestern, because he’s not the type of player (fast, athletic, strong) the Wildcats have typically had in their secondary in recent years. How Igwebuike performed this spring should not suppress that excitement. He looked good, and so high expectations are appropriate. 

Stock down: Daniel Jones

This is totally unfair. Trust me, I know. Jones didn’t play this spring because he is still working his way back from a knee injury. He cannot prove he belongs on the first or second team until he is healthy. Jones very well could win a starting spot at cornerback, but he’ll need to wait until preseason workouts to do so. While he was out, other players – including Harris, his main competition – only solidified their standing in Northwestern’s secondary. Harris stepped up in Jones’ absence last season and, while he struggled at times, the sophomore looks like he could develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

That leaves senior Jones, a starter entering last season, in a tough spot. He will have to fight to earn his starting spot back. Does he have a chance at beating out Harris? Maybe. How good of a chance? I can’t say, because I don’t know what kind of effect a major injury like an ACL tear will have on Jones. If his rehab went well and he’s retained most of his quickness and athleticism, maybe Jones can prove he’s one of NU’s two best corners. It will be an uphill battle, we know that much. Harris took over for Dwight White as a starter in the middle of last season and played well this spring. Jones looked good in practices last summer, but he hasn’t done much of note in games … besides get steamrolled by Le’Veon Bell.

Position battle: See the ‘Stock down’ section

Biggest offseason question: Is secondary Northwestern’s best position group?

I provided a lengthy answer to this very question last month. Here’s the short version: Maybe. Northwestern has more depth and athleticism in the secondary than it’s had at any point since Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach. When Big Ten fan bases would poke fun at Northwestern in previous years, they would point to a pass defense that couldn’t stop anybody. That wasn’t the case last season – Northwestern tied for fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt – and it’s unlikely it will be the case in 2014. Why am I optimistic about Northwestern’s secondary? Look at the two deep.

VanHoose had an uneven season but if he plays to his potential, he is, at minimum, a decent-but-not-great cornerback. Harris is young, but his performance as a true freshman hinted that he has a bright future, and he should be improved as a sophomore. It’s not a huge stretch to posit that Campbell could be recognized as first-team All-Big Ten (he was honorable mention in 2013). Henry had a few mental lapses last season, but he’s made strides since breaking in as a true freshman two years ago.

Those are just the starters. Northwestern has quality backups at safety and cornerback, the kind of depth that will be useful against teams that like to deploy four and five wide receivers and air it out. This is not the best secondary in the Big Ten; it may not even be Northwestern’s best position group (you could make a strong case for the running backs). But it has the potential to be better than the pass defenses Northwestern has fielded in the recent past.