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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Defensive backs preview

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Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry will be missed, but there's a load of talent returning.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. Our final positional preview is the defensive backs.

Personnel

Returning starters: Matt Harris (Sr.), Godwin Igwebuike (Sr.)

Other returning contributors: Kyle Queiro (Jr.), Keith Watkins II (Jr.), Marcus McShepard (Jr.), Tommy Odell (Jr.), Parrker Westphal (So.), Jared McGee (So.), Montre Hartage (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: Alonzo Mayo, Trae Williams, Steven Reese, Jacob Murray, Joe Bergin

Incoming freshmen: Roderick Campbell Jr., Travis Whillock, Brian Bullock

Overview

The defensive backs were an integral part of a defensive unit that finished 5th in S&P+ and carried Northwestern to 10 wins. They also ranked 10th nationally in passing downs S&P+ and 7th in passing downs success rate. At its best, this was an elite unit.

And while they lose two of four starters in cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry, there's a significant amount of talent returning. Safety Godwin Igwebuike had a breakout year and Matt Harris (third-team All-Big Ten selection) will start at corner for the fourth consecutive year. Those two are virtually guaranteed to start, barring injury, so the real question going into spring camp and and next season is who will replace the graduated seniors.

Position Battles

Who will replace Nick VanHoose at cornerback?

Keith Watkins II has the inside track to earning a starting role, as he appeared in 11 games and started in two in 2015. Marcus McShepard figured to be his stiffest competition, but McShepard will move to wide receiver for the 2016 season. Montre Hartage now figures to be the top competition for Watkins. Roderick Campbell Jr., the second-highest ranked player in Northwestern's 2016 recruiting class, will also be a factor once he enrolls in the fall, though with so much depth already in place, he is likely to redshirt.

VanHoose wasn't a tremendous athlete and was exposed on deep balls multiple times last season, but he evolved into one of the best tacklers on the team and was key to Northwestern's run defense, even from the secondary. Watkins plays a similar style and should be able to fill in adequately. However, it's always difficult to replace an All-Big Ten player.

There's a darkhorse candidate to the position, however. Redshirt sophomore Parrker Westphal was a four-star recruit and ranked as the 10th best cornerback prospect in his class out of high school. But his time in Evanston has been a  disappointment as he was forced to redshirt his freshman year due to injury and missed all of last year's spring practices. He only appeared in four games this season, but this is a kid who had offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The talent is there, it's just a matter of whether Westphal can get his body right and show why he was such a highly sought-after recruit.

Who will provide depth at safety?

All signs seem to point to Kyle Queiro taking the place of Traveon Henry as a starter. Queiro was the No. 1 backup before a broken arm ended his regular season, although he did return for the Outback Bowl. Queiro is tall (6-foot-3) and perhaps quicker than Henry is, so there shouldn't be much of a drop-off.

The issue is the depth. Jared McGee battled injuries and didn't show much as a redshirt freshman. And although there have been positive reports about Jacob Murray, this year's crop of redshirt freshmen were all towards the bottom of the 2015 class. At least one of them will have to step up. If they don't, perhaps Westphal could find a home at safety.

Burning question

Can NU find a role for Parrker Westphal?

Northwestern had high hopes for Westphal. He hasn't delivered yet, but he's still young enough to develop into a solid contributor. It's crazy to think that he'll be just a sophomore (in terms of football eligibility) in 2016. But where does he fit? He'd have to make huge strides this offseason to jump Watkins and McShepard at corner. Westphal was seen by some as a safety coming out of high school though, so could Pat Fitzgerald and defensive backs coach Jerry Brown try him there?

Breakout player to watch

Keith Watkins II

I had to talk myself out of putting Steven Reese here simply because of his dancing mastery. Instead, it's Watkins, who has been stuck behind VanHoose and Harris on the depth chart. But every time Watkins sees the field, he seems to be making plays. He could be ready to breakout opposite Harris in 2016.

Depth chart projection

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Cornerback Keith Watkins Montre Hartage Alonzo Mayo
Safety Kyle Queiro Jared McGee Steven Reese
Safety Godwin Igwebuike Jacob Murray Tommy Odell
Cornerback Matt Harris Parrker Westphal Trae Williams