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2018 Northwestern football position previews: Safety

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Potentially Northwestern’s biggest unknown, the safeties will have big shoes to fill this year.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning starters (career starts): None

Key Losses: Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro

Returners: Jared McGee (R-Sr.), J.R. Pace (So.), Travis Whillock (R-So.), Austin Hiller (R-Fy.), Bryce Jackson (R-Fy.), Donovan Sermons (R-Fy.)

Newcomers: Jeremiah McDonald (Fy.)

Outside of the two current starters, this Northwestern safety crop has virtually no in-game collegiate experience. It will be a transition year for this group, which features just one upperclassmen projected to get significant snaps. The rest of the group, which includes a pair of highly-touted recruits in Hiller and McDonald, will have to learn on the job.

Last year, the Wildcat defense depended heavily on Queiro and Igwebuike, who combined for 110 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 18 pass breakups. Luckily, the rest of the defense, retaining most contributors, should be able to pick up most of the slack, but the safeties will still have big shoes to fill. McGee has been consistently solid in his main role as nickel safety for the past two seasons and Pace showed flashes of brilliance in limited significant playing time last year. The depth, though, will remain a major question mark, and it remains to be seen how even the starters’ skill sets will translate to considerably larger roles.

Key Player:

Jared McGee

Pace’s adaptation to a starting job will obviously be a huge storyline to watch as well, but as the sole veteran in the group, McGee’s leadership will almost certainly key safety production. The underrated senior has had consistent success in passing situations over his Northwestern career, being used almost exclusively in nickel and dime packages. McGee carries more game action into 2018 than the rest of the safeties combined, and will have to learn how to play every down on the fly, as there is nothing proven behind him.

While McGee attempts to make a transition, he will also have to fully step into the spotlight. Despite his consistent playing time over the past two years, the senior was always in the shadow of his brash partners, with Queiro and Igwebuike getting the headlines and the attention. Those two will be wearing different jerseys this fall, and McGee will have to shoulder the leadership load. If he isn’t ready, there’s not much else to turn to.

The senior will have plenty of talent around him, and proven run-stoppers in front of him. But as Northwestern’s defense transitions away from safety dominance, McGee will have to make sure the group doesn’t become an easy target.

Big Question:

Which underclassmen will step up?

As nickel and dime packages have become more prevalent in recent years at Northwestern (and all around college football), the need for defensive back depth has increased. The Wildcats’ well-documented problems with defensive back health just add to that necessity. Whillock, who missed last year with a hamstring injury, and the freshmen will have a significant competition on their hands for backup slots. Even if Pace and McGee remain healthy and effective, at least a couple of the other safeties should see significant playing time. If they aren’t ready for it, they’ll be glaring weak spots on an otherwise stout, veteran defense.

This Northwestern safety group appears on its face to be the Wildcat defense’s most shallow spot. Overcoming that perception through a few surprise breakthroughs would shore up that projected defense considerably, maybe even to the point of dominance. A strong, consistent safety group could catapult Northwestern into Big Ten Title contention, but it must come from the unproven underclassmen.

Projected Depth Chart:

Safety Depth

1st string 2nd string 3rd string
1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Jared McGee Travis Whillock Bryce Jackson
J.R. Pace Jeremiah McDonald Austin Hiller