With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.
We're on to our final non-special teams unit: the secondary.
What a job by this group. The core four of Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris, Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike was fantastic all season, especially when all four were healthy at the same time, which they were for the majority of the year. By passing efficiency defense standards, Northwestern was third in the nation behind only Michigan and Wisconsin, and the Wildcats gave up just five touchdowns through the air, the fewest in the entire country. But it takes more than just four guys to complete a secondary, and Keith Watkins, Marcus McShepard, Terrance Brown and even Kyle Queiro stepped up at important points of the season.
Nick VanHoose: A-
41 tackles, 3 interceptions, 12 PBU, 1 FF
Save for a couple instances, VanHoose was his usual steady self, once again getting selected as an All-Big Ten second-teamer. The senior struggled against Ball State's Jordan Williams, a bigger wide receiver, and was burned on the very first offensive play against Purdue, but other than that was solid and at times spectacular. His Pick 6 against Nebraska was one of the biggest plays this season. VanHoose's leadership and skills will be sorely missed against Tennessee.
Matt Harris: A
45 tackles, 4 interceptions, 12 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR
This grade would be an A+ if he hadn't missed time after the injury at Michigan. Harris was fantastic, sometimes seemingly running the wide receivers' routes for them. There was a noticeable drop off when he wasn't on the field, and I feel he was hard-done by the voters who only elected him to the conference's third team. He was as good as there was this season.
Keith Watkins: B+
38 tackles, 3 PBU
Watkins didn't force any turnovers, but in general was very solid as a nickel and sometimes dime corner. He really stepped up at Duke, where many guys saw major time because of the heat, and that was especially true in the secondary against a Blue Devil team that liked to spread the field. It was clear that Watkins wasn't on the same level as Harris when he was forced to fill in for the injured starter, but that's certainly not an indictment of Watkins, but rather an indication of how good Harris is. For much of the season, Watkins did a superb job as a third corner.
Marcus McShepard: B-
McShepard either took a step back this year or was simply passed on the depth chart by Watkins, but he didn't have as much of an impact this season as he did last season. He was mainly used in dime packages and was solid, if unspectacular in that role. Known for his athleticism, he'll see an increased role with VanHoose unavailable for the bowl game.
Traveon Henry: B+
58 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 PBU, 1 FR
The senior safety and leader of the Sky Team continued to show improvement in coverage and showed he could still lower a boom. Unfortunately, Henry too often went for the big hit instead of wrapping up, but in general he was a dependable safety who rarely got beat deep. His interception against Purdue was key on a day where the team didn't quite seem to have the edge it showed throughout the year. His improvement this season compared to last was a big factor in Northwestern's defense being as strong as it was this year.
Godwin Igwebuike: A
73 tackles, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR
Igwebuike was all over the field this year, as shown by his 73 tackles, and he was Northwestern's best open-field tackler. He's an outstanding athlete who can play sideline to sideline, and his strip and recovery against Duke was just about the best play anyone could make in that situation. It was surprising to see Igwebuike record no interceptions, but he was rarely given the opportunity to do so, as quarterbacks generally avoided him.
Terrance Brown: B
He was solid in spot duty, no more no less, but that's what the team needed at some big points late in the year.
Kyle Queiro & Jared McGee: INC
Queiro: 6 tackles, 1 interceptions
McGee: 6 tackles
Queiro was fantastic in very limited action, and he will be a welcome return against Tennessee, as his versatility could be key against a high-powered Vols offense. Overall, though, he didn't play enough of this season to warrant a grade, and the same goes for McGee, who had his own injury troubles throughout the season.
Steven Reese: ?
We may never know how to appropriately grade this one.