Over the next couple of weeks, InsideNU will reveal its rankings of the most important players on Northwestern’s football team. Past production, position and potential, among other criteria, were taken into account. We only ask one thing from you: If there’s one player you believe is pegged too high or low, reserve your venom until after reading the explanation. The leader of the defensive backfield comes in at No. 4.
Of the over 100 players listed on Northwestern’s 2014 football roster, not a single one – outside of perhaps Brandon Vitable, the No. 5 player on our list – has equaled the on-field influence and achievement over the past three seasons of the No. 4 player on our list, Ibraheim Campbell.
Ever since winning the starting strong safety job as a redshirt freshman in 2011, Campbell has been one of Northwestern’s most consistent players, bar none. He was named to numerous all-freshman teams that season, and finished the year as NU’s leading tackler. Then, in both 2012 and 2013, he garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both coaches and media, all while distinguishing himself as one of the team’s leaders, both on the field and off it. At this point, his talent and locker room status are unquestioned.
But why is Campbell, now a senior, so important to NU in 2014? Because he must take the next step.
After starring on both sides of the ball in high school, Campbell’s progression at NU has been steady. Following his redshirt season, his freshman season in Evanston was highlighted by his ability as a run-stopper. He showed aggression, athleticism and toughness, and while a cynic might say that the seven men in front of him showed an astounding ability to let ball carriers reach the secondary, Campbell’s 100 tackles truly were impressive.
In his sophomore season though, Campbell became a more complete player. His coverage capabilities improved by leaps and bounds, and his schematic awareness and football mind developed considerably.
Then last season, the upward slope continued – but it began to level off a bit. Campbell was good last year – don’t let his decreased tackle totals tell you otherwise – and was one of the leaders of the defense, but he didn’t catapult himself into the top tier of Big Ten safeties. He didn’t make as many eye-catching plays as might’ve been expected.
But even if he didn't quite become the impact player that some thought he could be in 2013, Campbell is integral to Northwestern’s defense. First of all, he bolsters a run defense that at times can be shaky. Second, he’s both physical and reliable in pass coverage. And third, he’s a smart player who, from his perch at safety, oversees the defense.
Heading into 2014, this is an NU secondary that has a chance to make some noise. Not only might it be Northwestern’s top position group, it could also be one of the better units of its kind in the Big Ten. In fact, the Wildcats will need it to be so if their Big Ten West division title aspirations are to be realized.
And it all starts with Campbell. This is his final shot to force his way onto an All-Big Ten team, and one of his final shots to impress NFL scouts on the field ahead of the 2015 draft (some see him as a top-five strong safety in the draft class). But more importantly for Northwestern, if he does take that next step, he could be the catalyst for some substantial improvement from this team on the defensive side of the ball in 2014.