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2019 Northwestern football position reviews: Safeties

The back end of NU’s defense started strong, but faded a bit down the stretch with a few disappointing showings.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year. Next up are the safeties.

Overall Grade: B

Northwestern’s secondary struggled overall this year, and the safeties’ up-and-down performance despite big expectations certainly didn’t help. While the ‘Cats returned JR Pace in the starting lineup and officially promoted Travis Whillock to a starter as well, the two had their share of rough moments across their junior seasons intermixed with some impressive play, and had limited depth behind them to support them through said struggles.

On numerous occasions, the safeties were burned downfield as opposing quarterbacks easily picked apart Northwestern’s secondary. The first issues arose early in the season against Michigan State when the secondary allowed 228 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions to the Spartans.

Against Ohio State, the Wildcats surrendered 201 passing yards to Justin Fields and Chris Chugunov and five total receiving touchdowns. A few weeks later against Minnesota, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman destroyed the safeties, putting up a combined 203 receiving yards for four touchdowns.

While the secondary struggled in the pass game, Pace and Whillock especially, have shown their impressive talent and ability in their time in Evanston, and that continued to crop up across a disappointing 2019. The two made their fair share of plays in the run game and contributed successfully to the pass defense at times as well.

Each will be expected to improve as returning starters in their senior season, and despite this year’s difficulties, that could make this position group a strong point moving forward.

Player Grades:

JR Pace: B-

Stats: 42 tackles, one interception, three pass breakups

Pace was the only returning starter in the group this year, and expectations were high for the junior as he filled the shoes of the recently departed Jared McGee. Pace ultimately and unfortunately took a big step backwards in terms of career stat production. He recorded only half the tackles he had in 2018, had three fewer interceptions and broke up seven fewer passes than in his strong sophomore campaign.

While he made some nice plays that the numbers don’t fully encapsulate, Pace too often just didn’t look like his ball-hawking self. The junior is a sure tackler, unlike others around him, and still showed some ability in coverage during 2019. But largely, Pace was a bit too tentative, and though he didn’t receive nearly enough help from the players in front of him, he needed to do better on the back end down the stretch of the season.

Travis Whillock: B+

Stats: 78 tackles, one sack, one pass breakup, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries

Whillock stepped into a starting role this season and performed admirably amongst a group that struggled overall. He led the secondary stat-wise and was a reliable in creating both big plays and necessary stops at key moments during the season. Altogether, Whillock showed solid improvement from his sophomore performance, which is all we can hope for from this secondary.

However, the Katy native still struggled at times in his first year as a full-time starter. Against tougher competition, like the Minnesota receivers — some of the best in the conference — Whillock found himself beaten often. Ultimately, he will continue to improve over time as he faces off with the best of the best, but as Whillock himself could tell you, a bit more game-to-game consistency could go a long way.

Bryce Jackson: B

Stats: 20 tackles, one pass breakup, one fumble recovery

Jackson fulfilled his role on the team as a backup safety to relieve Pace and Whillock when needed. He appeared in all 12 games this season and about matched his stats from 2018. While he was not relied on or used heavily, he did his job as a utility player and started to step up more later in the year, looking like a promising piece who could potentially step into an increased role in nickel/dime packages for 2020.

Joe Bergin: B

Stats: 13 tackles

The No. 1 jersey wearer this season was also used sparingly as a backup to relieve the starters. In his senior season, Bergin kept in line with his limited performance all career long, charting few stats on the field (specifically on special teams where, aside from one or two notable blunders, he excelled) but making a bigger impact as a leader off of it.

Coco Azema: Incomplete

Stats: four games played, four tackles, one forced fumble

Azema was a great addition to the squad overall in his first season in Evanston. By only appearing in four games, he maintained redshirt eligibility and will see four more years as a Wildcat. However, in his limited play, he had some explosive moments, including a forced fumble against Minnesota.

He finished his season with an impressive performance at running back against Illinois, so we will have to wait until next season to see which position group he will primarily join. Either way, he has a bright future ahead.

Brandon Joseph: Incomplete

Stats: four games played, four tackles

The first year had a quiet season, as he also maintained redshirt status in just four games of action. He managed to record a few tackles in his limited play, and Joseph will start to see more action soon as the safety unit graduates Pace and Whillock after next season.