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Northwestern 2015 Spring Guide: Defensive Backs

Will Northwestern's experienced secondary develop into one of the Big Ten's best?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Inside NU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern's spring football practice. Practice starts February 25 and runs through the spring "game" on April 11, with a break for finals and the school's regularly scheduled spring break. We'll run through each position unit to let you know what to watch once practice begins.

Returning Staters: CB Nick VanHoose (Sr.), S Traveon Henry (Sr.), CB Matthew Harris (Jr.)

Other Returning Players: S Godwin Igwebuike (So.), S Kyle Quiero (So.), CB Marcus McShephard (So.), CB Keith Watkins II (So.), CB Parrker Westphal (RS Fr.), S Terrance Brown (Jr.), S Tommy Odell (So.), S Jared McGee (RS Fr.), CB Troy Sheppard (Jr.)

Incoming Recruits: CB Alonzo MayoS Jacob MurrayCB Montre HartageS Simba ShortS/WR Steven ReeseCB/S/RB Trae Williams

Biggest Spring Question: Will the starters take another step forward?

The secondary will be one of Northwestern's most experienced position groups in 2015. The three returning starters have totaled 69 career starts in their Wildcat careers, and the man replacing Ibraheim Campbell, Godwin Igwebuike, started five games as a redshirt freshman last season.

This unit made huge strides last season, jumping from 101st nationally in pass defense in 2013 to 43rd in 2014. Matt Harris was better in coverage and open field tackling. He finished the season with 70 tackles, nearly double his total as a freshman.

Nick VanHoose experienced some struggles in the non-conference and had lapses in coverage every now and then. He found consistency in the long run though and was selected to the All-Big Ten second team by the media. VanHoose and Harris are undoubtedly the starting duo at the cornerback slots, so their progression will be key to Northwestern's pass defense.

Northwestern has several legitimate options off the bench as well. Sophomores Marcus McShephard and Keith Watkins II played in a combined 11 games last season and both could see time at the nickel. And don't forget about Parrker Westphal, who redshirted last season but was ranked among ESPN's top 100 recruits in the class of 2014.

Pat Fitzgerald will definitely want to see development from his safeties too. Godwin Igwebuike was impressive as a redshirt freshman, totaling 51 tackles and essentially winning the Wisconsin game by snagging three interceptions. However, he's no Ibraheim Campbell, at least not at this point. There's room for improvement in Igwebuike's skills as a ball hawk and run stopper.

There is one natural run stopper in the secondary, and that's Traveon Henry. He's big, strong and has a knack for tracking down the ball carrier, which is why he may not actually be in the secondary in 2015. Northwestern needs someone to fill the void left by outside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Henry's skill set translates well to the position, and he doesn't possess the speed you want in a safety so a move isn't out of the question.

If Henry does transition to linebacker, Kyle Queiro would be the man to take the other starting safety slot. Quiero saw the field in all 12 of NU's games last season, but his playing time was limited and he totaled just eight tackles. Although he's tall at 6-foot-3, Quiero's quick and good in coverage, enough so that Fitzgerald moved him to cornerback when NU was slim in the secondary against Illinois.

Quiero's development should play a significant role in where Henry ends up. Fitzgerald won't move Henry if Queiro hasn't improved much from last year. In any case, three starting spots in the secondary are filled by experienced players. How those guys progress will be the determining factor for the performance of the secondary.

Position Battles

As explained above, the two starting cornerback slots are taken by Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose. Godwin Igwebuike is basically a lock for one safety slot, and if Fitzgerald doesn't move Traveon Henry, he should start alongside Igwebuike. Kyle Queiro and Marcus McShephard could fight for more time off the bench and Keith Watkins II will play some nickel, but the starters are essentially determined.

Watch out for Westphal though. Had he not been injured, he might have seen time as a true freshman, and could take a big step this year. There's also an outside chance he sees time at safety if Fitzgerald isn't impressed with his other options there.

Projected Depth Chart

CB: Nick VanHoose, Parrker Westphal

NB: Keith Watkins II, Parrker Westphal

S: Traveon Henry, Kyle Queiro

S: Godwin Igwebuike, Terrance Brown

CB: Matthew Harris, Marcus McShephard