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Northwestern football season in review: Defensive backs grades

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Young cornerbacks and experienced safeties led to some impressive performances but some struggles as well.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

With the season in the rearview mirror, it’s time to assess how Northwestern’s individuals performed this season. All classes are according to the 2016 season. The secondary was thought to be a position of strength, but after injuries to Keith Watkins II and Matthew Harris, it was up to a group of youngsters to get the job done.

CB Montre Hartage (sophomore): B

60 total tackles (48 solo), 5 interceptions, 9 pass breakups

Hartage was pressed into top cornerback responsibilities after Harris got hurt against Illinois State (and later retired). It was certainly a learning-on-the-fly process, but the true sophomore generally got better throughout the year, as would be expected. He had a fantastic performance against Purdue, specifically against star wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who was limited to three catches for 35 yards, tied for the second-fewest yards he registered in a game this year. Hartage also had two interceptions in West Lafayette. But he often played too far off wide receivers, allowing for some simple completions. He gave up some long balls too — most notably against Pitt on a double move — but overall it was a promising campaign for Hartage, who is a good athlete, and he will be in line for one of the higher grades next year with a year of experience at cornerback under his belt.

CB Trae Williams (redshirt freshman): C+

42 tackles (33 solo), 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 7 PBU

When quarterbacks picked a side of the field to target, they usually picked Williams’ side. The redshirt freshman was thrust into the lineup thanks to injuries and much like his counterpart on the other side had his ups and downs. He pieced together a solid game in his first career start (against Duke) but also gave up far too many easy completions. He did, however, seal the Iowa game with an interception. He wasn’t quite as busy as Hartage and he had some injury issues — he played in 11 games — so he earns a slightly lower grade but is another young, exciting prospect nonetheless.

CB Marcus McShepard (junior): C+

28 tackles (22 solo), 1 interception, 4 PBU

He was a cornerback. Then he flipped to wide receiver. Then he went back to cornerback. And there McShepard stayed in 2016, seeing playing time in all 13 games, though not seeing a ton of time on the defensive side of things. He played important roles in the middle of the season and again late in the season (25 total tackles combined vs. Indiana, at Ohio State, at Minnesota and vs. Illinois), but it was clear that the offseason away from the position hurt. Still, McShepard’s ability and willingness to transition back and forth was admirable, and he had some very solid performances, most notably against Indiana. He also grabbed his only pick on the year in Minneapolis. Similar to the theme, McShepard had some good and some bad.

CB Alonzo Mayo (redshirt freshman): D+

10 tackles (5 solo), 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU

With all the injuries ahead of him, Mayo seemed likely to slide into the third cornerback role. But his own injuries and underwhelming performances pushed him off the depth chart entirely by season’s end. The redshirt freshman played in just five games.

S Godwin Igwebuike (junior): A

108 tackles (78 solo), 6.0 TFL, 2 interceptions, 7 PBU, 1 fumble recovery, 1 fumble forced

Every single Northwestern fan simultaneously celebrated and breathed a sigh of relief when Igwebuike announced he will be back in 2017. The speedy safety led the team in tackles and was extremely valuable both as a traditional safety and as a slot cornerback. He got beaten a few times, but not often, and he was arguably the most important defender on the team. He played in all 13 games and capped off the season with a 7-tackle, 1-interception performance in the Pinstripe Bowl.

S Kyle Queiro (junior): B+

53 tackles (32 solo), 3.5 TFL, 2 interceptions, 6 PBU, 1 FR

Ok, first, let’s get this out of the way:

It was the No. 1 play on SportsCenter and probably the play of the year for Northwestern.

Outside of that, Queiro was once again solid and he, too, showed versatility playing a decent amount of cornerback. He sealed the Pinstripe Bowl with an interception, too. The rangy safety will be back next year to form a very good safety duo alongside Igwebuike.

S Jared McGee (sophomore): B

36 tackles (26 solo), 1.5 TFL, 3 interceptions, 3 PBU

He may not be a starter, but McGee was hugely important, and his ability at safety allowed Igwebuike and Queiro play closer to the line.

He was excellent in the Pinstripe Bowl — NU’s top-rated player — and solid throughout the year overall. He’ll be back next year to complete a triumvirate of good safeties.

Overall grade: B

The safeties were very good. The cornerbacks had their moments but also had their struggles, which was to be expected due to the youth. With Watkins II back next year, this should be a deeper and better unit.