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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the secondary

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Led by terrific safeties, the back end of the defense was very solid.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Music City Bowl - Kentucky v Northwestern Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. This series wraps up with a position that is losing two outstanding players but also has plenty of young talent: the secondary.

Overall grade: B

The first year of the post-Justin Jackson era is going to be the weirdest thing about the 2018 season. He’s been in the backfield for what seems like forever. He’s the program’s all-time leading rusher and a two-time bowl game MVP. It’s going to be really strange to not see him running the ball on Saturdays.

But the departures of Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro could have an even larger impact. Over the past four years, the two all-Big Ten performers combined for 92 games played, 456 total tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss, 54 passed defended and 15 interceptions.

Before getting into what’s ahead, though, it’s important to wrap up what’s behind. Northwestern’s secondary, led by Igwebuike and Queiro, was up and down in 2017 while facing a ton of volume. The Wildcats finished dead last in the Big Ten with 249.5 passing yards allowed per game, but also were thrown against far more than any other team. In terms of defensive passing efficiency, NU landed at 7th in the conference.

At corner, Northwestern once again received solid play from Montre Hartage. The spot opposite of him, though, was plagued with inconsistency. Trae Williams returned from a torn Achilles to play in 10 games, Alonzo Mayo played in nine and Marcus McShepard eight.

Where the secondary was strong was in its versatility and playmaking. Northwestern was able to use Queiro as a cornerback in most of its subpackages, rotating in Jared McGee and J.R. Pace at the safety spots, and the secondary snagged 14 of the Wildcats’ 17 interceptions (third in the B1G).

Player grades:

Montre Hartage: B+

Stats: 57 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble

Hartage got thrown at more than every Big Ten cornerback except one. In general, he did a very solid job tasked with other teams’ top targets. He came up with a huge (and very impressive) pick in the bowl game after a rough start and also had picks against Duke and Minnesota. Hartage was a very late addition to the 2015 pledge class and has exceeded every expectation placed upon the former two-star recruit. With the two safeties behind him leaving, Hartage will have to take another step forward in his senior year.

Godwin Igwebuike: B

Stats: 78 tackles, 2 INTs, 11 passes defended, 2 INTs, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble

Igwebuike is Northwestern’s best prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft, but he probably wasn’t the best safety on his own team this season. His talents and leadership are undeniable, but the senior safety’s production dipped slightly in 2017; Igwebuike recorded his fewest number of tackles and TFLs since his freshman year. He was still the best tackler out of the secondary and made plenty of plays against the pass (2 picks, 8 passes defended), including this highlight-reel INT of Alex Hornibrook:

But both in numbers and the eye test, his year didn’t meet the lofty expectations he created with an incredible junior season. Regardless, Igwebuike’s contributions to the program as a vital four-year playmaker and growth as a leader can’t be overstated. His presence in the secondary and in the locker room will be greatly missed in 2018.

Kyle Queiro: A

Stats: 60 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 5 INTs (1 TD), 14 passes defended (probably more like 140)

I’m obviously biased, but I legitimately think Kyle Queiro has the talent to be an NFL safety if a team were to give him a chance. He’s not the fastest player, sure, but he has an almost uncanny ability to be in the right place and the right time and make a play. Queiro had an incredible senior year and put up great numbers along with five or six incredible athletic plays.

Look at this career highlight tape and tell me he can’t play in the NFL:

Jared McGee: B

Stats: 27 tackles, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble

McGee’s season will probably be defined by one key play. His targeting ejection in the Duke game that left Northwestern with a broken-down secondary proved disastrous in Week 2. It was a controversial call, but one that drastically affected Northwestern’s season. McGee was a serviceable safety and contributed, even if his stats dropped off a bit.

Looking ahead to 2018:

Hartage will be the unquestioned top corner for the second year in a row, but there will be an opening at the other cornerback spot. Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo would appear to be the most likely candidates to fill that role. With a full healthy offseason, Williams would seem to be a good bet for the starting spot, but Mayo will surely see a lot of action.

At safety, expect McGee and Pace to fill in as the new starters following the departure of the Igwebuike-Queiro tandem. McGee has a ton of game experience serving as essentially a third starter when Queiro slid up to play corner. Pace had a solid true freshman campaign with two interceptions.

Northwestern has a ton of young depth at both cornerback and safety. It’s worth mentioning that the group will be under new tutelage: Jerry Brown retired and former Wildcat great Tim McGarigle will be taking his place. How quickly McGarigle adapts to his new position and a relatively young position group — McGee and Hartage will be seniors, but much of the depth, especially at safety, will be quite inexperienced — will be a key storyline to follow.