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Depth a major strength in defensive backfield

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Through recruiting and player development, Northwestern has developed a deep crop of defensive backs.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- By all indications, Northwestern's current crop of defensive backs is one of, if not the deepest position groups on the roster heading into training camp.

Heading into 2013, cornerback was a bit of question. While Nick VanHoose was a stalwart at one position, the other spot was one by Daniel Jones. Jones, who has since retired from football, missed the entire season with an injury, opening the door for then-freshmen Matt Harris and Dwight White. Along with those two players' experience, others such as Keith Watkins and Parrker Westphal will be challenging for playing time.

"We're going to have great competition in camp," Coach Pat Fitzgerald said." I think that what we learned in the spring is that we've got pretty solid depth there."

The best part of the depth, Fitzgerald noted, was that Northwestern has "depth in classes," meaning that the talent on the roster is not exclusively concentrated in one class or another. Since 2010, Northwestern's recruiting classes have shown a conscious effort to recruit talented DBs, often turning players listed as "athletes" into defenders.

CLASS RECRUIT AVERAGE RATING (from 247 Sports)
2010

Ibraheim Campbell, S

CJ Bryant, CB

Daniel Jones, CB

Jimmy Hall, S

.8241
2011

Jarrell Williams, CB

Nick VanHoose, CB

.82945
2012

Traveon Henry, S

Terrance Brown, S

Dwight White, CB

.82613
2013

Godwin Igwebuike, S

Kyle Queiro, S

Keith Watkins, CB

Marcus McShepard, CB

Matt Harris, CB

.84708
2014

Parrker Westphal, CB

Jared McGee

.8617

But Fitzgerald made it clear that not all of the players looking for playing time would see it on defense. Many, he said will make a major impact on special teams.

"We've got talent behind them that want to play and they're going to compete to play and I think there's going to be a lot of roles filled by that whole group," he said. "Especially early in that first month, that group of athletes needs to dominate in the kicking game for us. For me to be excited about that group, that's what I need to see. I know they all want to play DB, I get it.

"As a young player, you've got to embrace that role. If you embrace it–that's not why I recruited those guys, who are we kidding–you're going to get your nose bloody, do some fun things, do some things where the only people who are going to know about it are your mom, your dad and girlfriend because nobody knows who all the working parts are in the kicking game except for the snapper, holder and kicker and punter and kick returner. Nobody else knows who the rest of the guys are. Those guys will get their nose bloody that way the first month."

Heading into his senior season, All-Big Ten safety Ibraheim Campbell has also recognized the depth of his position group, citing the ability for players to be interchangeable as a major plus.

"You definitely kind of recognize that the level of athlete that we have playing in our defensive backfield is better than I've seen since I've been here and it's fun to watch," Cambell said. "That whole interchangeable aspect of it is something that they're really trying to develop because while you may be a great athlete the whole experience thing is something that you can't replace so we're really trying to harp on getting guys prepared this off season to step on to the field, not necessarily as a back up and be prepared as if they were a starter every week."