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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the secondary

Montre Hartage and JR Pace led a group that struggled with injuries all year.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the nine-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. The final position group on the defensive side of the ball is the secondary.

Overall grade: B

Another year, another rash of injuries in the secondary. From the beginning of the season to the end, NU struggled with injuries amongst its defensive backs. The Wildcats were particularly susceptible to teams with big, athletic receivers (see Ohio State and Notre Dame) and struggled to stop the big play early in the season (we remember Duke and Akron).

Things evened out as the season progressed, and the Wildcats boasted some top-line talent like Montre Hartage and JR Pace, and solid contributors like Jared McGee. Moreover, newcomers Greg Newsome II and Cam Ruiz had some important moments, too. Considering the amount of injuries the secondary suffered, it’s a small miracle Northwestern had as much success as it did defensively, but a No. 78 pass defense per S&P+ is something to work on.

Player grades:

JR Pace: A-

Stats: 82 tackles, seven pass breakups, 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, one fumble recovery, Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP

The secondary was characterized by injury, but Pace was NU’s ironman, starting all 14 games. He finished first on the team in interceptions, second in pass breakups, and third on in total tackles. I’ll give myself a pat on the back for predicting his breakout season. The sophomore came up huge in important moments, picking off two Adrian Martinez passes, including one in overtime, and registering two more turnovers in the third quarter of the Holiday Bowl.

Primarily used as a free-safety, Pace showed some run-stopping ability later in the year too, with 4.5 tackles for loss. The junior will be the Wildcat with the most experience in the secondary this fall, and figures to be the group’s emotional leader, too.

Montre Hartage: A-

Stats: 51 tackles, 13 pass breakups, two interceptions, one fumble recovery

Hartage stepped up when Northwestern needed him most, putting together huge games against Wisconsin and Michigan State. We took a look at what makes Hartage so special back in November. An injury undermined the final month of Hartage’s college career, but it appears as if Hartage is back to normal.

The senior got beat from time to time, but he also made a ton of plays, and some NFL team is going to be happy they took a chance on him.

Travis Whillock: B+

Stats: 57 tackles, three tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries

One of the feel-good stories of the season, Whillock came on strong to close the season, starting against Notre Dame when he filled in for the injured McGee with ten tackles. He led the Wildcats in tackles against Iowa and Minnesota. The redshirt sophomore displayed excellent run-stopping skills, and he figures to slide right into the role McGee occupied for most of 2018.

Jared McGee: B

Stats: 51 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one touchdown

After a solid start to the season, McGee got banged up against Notre Dame and wasn’t able to contribute much until the Holiday Bowl. Of course, McGee played a huge role in that win, and his leadership off the field contributed to NU’s success, too. If Travis Whillock hadn’t stepped in for McGee when the senior got injured, Northwestern would be looking a lot worse at safety in 2019.

Greg Newsome II: B

Stats: 23 tackles, four pass breakups

A true freshman, Newsome II was thrown into the fire in Week One against Purdue and responded pretty well, with five tackles and one pass breakup in his first game. The going got tough quickly, though, and Newsome II had a rough game against Akron, then got hurt against Michigan. Facing a litany of injuries NU decided to burn his redshirt in the conference championship. All in all, Newsome II showed some promise, but he’ll have to be ready right away as the presumptive starter next year.

Cam Ruiz: B

26 tackles, four pass breakups, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery

The lightning-quick cornerback first saw action against Michigan State and showed the knack for the big play. Ruiz’s lack of size definitely disadvantaged him in coverage, but the freshman showed some tenacity. He forced a key fumble late in the game against Iowa and added two pass breakups to boot. And who could forget this blocked punt against Notre Dame?

Ruiz also demonstrated some value as a gunner on special teams. He figures to slot in as a third or fourth corner next season.

Trae Williams: B-

Stats: 26 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

The number two corner position was a big question mark coming into the season, and Williams got off to a tough start. Rondale Moore made Williams and the rest of the NU defense look pretty silly for most of the night, although Moore was putting Big Ten defenders on skates all season.

Williams struggled with injuries and effectiveness at times this year, losing his spot to Greg Newsome II early on. But the junior rebounded with a couple big plays: first, his strip-sack of Adrian Martinez that turned into an Earnest Brown IV touchdown, and second, his forced fumble in the Holiday Bowl that led to even more points for NU.

Williams will be NU’s veteran cornerback next season, and the development of his coverage and ball skills will be crucial to the Wildcat defense.

Alonzo Mayo: C

Stats: 24 tackles, three pass breakups

Mayo only saw the field once NU was in crisis mode because of injuries. He got his first game action against Iowa with Hartage and Newsome II both injured and played in each of the next four games. A small corner at 5-foot-11, Mayo often looked overmatched against bigger receivers and got beat pretty badly for touchdowns against Ohio State and Iowa.

Outlook for 2019

Northwestern has to be happy with where the safety position is at, with Pace as the presumable free safety and Whillock at strong safety. Cornerback is another question. Next season looks like another year where NU can ill afford any injuries at the position. Williams and Newsome II slot in as the starters, but Cam Ruiz is the only other returnee with extended experience. Roderick Campbell and AJ Hampton saw the field in bits and pieces, but that’s really it. Without the emergence of either of those players, or someone like Rod Heard, Northwestern could be in panic mode if one of their top three corners goes down.