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Northwestern football’s offseason questions: How will Northwestern’s secondary respond in 2019?

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The Wildcats will face a big challenge after the losses of Montre Hartage and Jared McGee.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

As spring practice begins to come to a close, Inside NU will be embarking on a new series of stories regarding the most important questions for Wildcat football to address in the offseason. With coaches and players coming and going and potential position battles galore, Northwestern has plenty to focus on going into its season opener in late August. With these stories, we will highlight what we feel are the most important questions that this team is facing as they try to build on nearly unprecedented success. Next, we’ll look at the build of the Northwestern secondary, and the prospects that the group faces heading into 2019.

Can a healthy Northwestern secondary improve on last season’s performance?

No position group faced more adversity in 2018 (and really for the past three or four years) than Northwestern’s defensive backs. The group dealt with injury after injury, and the effectiveness it was able to retain was downright impressive. Heading into the year, the backside of NU’s defense looked to be one of its strong suits, with plenty of veteran leadership in Jared McGee and Montre Hartage, as well as Trae Williams and JR Pace, who were expected to play large roles in the complexion of a unit that had lost two NFL caliber players in Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike.

By the end of the season, while all of those players played a role in the campaign, but so had Cameron Ruiz, Alonzo Mayo and Travis Whillock, who all found opportunities thanks to injuries. In a season-defining game against Iowa, Ruiz and Mayo played integral roles in a defense that clinched the Big Ten West for Northwestern. The pair combined for eight tackles and two passes defended in a massive effort. Meanwhile, Greg Newsome exploded onto the scene, and despite being limited to five games due to injuries of his own, looked like a building block for the team moving forwards.

The ‘Cats’ secondary injury woes finally caught up to them in the Big Ten Championship game, as the group couldn’t cope with Dwayne Haskins. But in a comeback effort against Utah in the Holiday Bowl, they bounced back to close out the careers of Hartage and McGee on top.

Assuming that NU doesn’t suffer another barrage of medical issues in 2019, the secondary will look something like this:

Two-Deep

CB #1 CB #2 FS SS Nickel Back
CB #1 CB #2 FS SS Nickel Back
Greg Newsome II Trae Williams JR Pace Travis Whillock Cam Ruiz
Rod Campbell Brian Bullock Jeremiah McDonald Bryce Jackson AJ Hampton

The first thing to note is that the loss of Hartage looms large. It’ll be tough for NU to allow a cornerback to play on an island last year as it was able to do with Hartage. Mike Hankwitz and Fitz will have to rely on scheme for the entire unit, but there are a number of positives in the current group.

Whillock and Pace will provide one of the best run-defending safety pairings in the conference. The two combined for 139 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2018, and a slight improvement in pass coverage would result in a promising tandem.

Ruiz also provided plenty of moments in 2018 to believe that he can take a big step forward in the upcoming season. Against Michigan State, he nearly forced a fumble before it was overturned upon review, defended two passes against Iowa, and blocked a punt against Notre Dame (2:25 in the video below).

Williams didn’t have his finest season in 2018, but two years ago he appeared to be on track to become a prominent piece of Northwestern’s secondary. Another offseason may allow the senior to step up in a similar manner to McGee last year.

And of course, Newsome has the most promise in the whole bunch. The returning sophomore, who just barely burned his shirt last year, is the corner with the most promise. With significant strides, he could potentially take up the mantle from Hartage as the leader on this defense.

But with Austin Hiller now officially retired, this unit really lacks depth. Campbell, Bullock, and Hampton all have very limited experience, and McDonald and Jackson haven’t seen any time with the starting defense. Behind them, it’s only promising first year Rod Heard and former walk-on Donovan Sermons and special teams stud Joe Bergin.

In the end, there’s a long way to go in the development of the group’s depth chart. Hankwitz and Matt MacPherson will have to work some magic in the event of continued struggles with injuries. While a productive secondary in 2019 is reliant on improved health from the previous season, a big question in its own right, there’s reason for optimism in the unit.