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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 8: Trae Williams/Greg Newsome II

The tandem will have to assume an even bigger role in the secondary after Montre Hartage’s departure.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.

We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.

Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will undoubtedly factor heavily into the seasons success. For each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

In the third installment, we’ll take a look at two defensive backs: senior Trae Williams and sophomore Greg Newsome II.

Eli Karp (7/NR)

These players bear special importance because of their position. Injuries and a general lack of depth decimated the Northwestern secondary last year which made life tough at times for the unit. The lack of constant pressure generated by the defensive line put an even larger burden on the secondary to bend without breaking.

Fortunately for Fitz’s defense, the defensive line returns a boatload of quarterback-chasing talent. That should ideally make things a little easier for the secondary. The cornerbacks room is in need of some playmakers to step up, especially after the graduation of Montre Hartage. We saw a combination of injuries, lack of experience and lack of depth hamper the Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship, and that led to Dwayne Haskins throwing for five touchdowns and nearly 500 yards.

A resurgence of the secondary would mean a lot for Northwestern, and Williams and Newsome need to be the men in charge. Williams, the likely number-two corner, played in 12 games last year and showed himself to be a reliable opposite Hartage. He and Newsome, who spent his senior year at IMG Academy in Florida, but had his freshman campaign marred by injuries, remain the most talented players in the unit. There was hype surrounding Newsome coming into the season, and he ended with four pass break-ups in just six starts, but he was noticeably a step behind in the Big Ten Championship after being sidelined for roughly two months.

I could rank Williams and Newsome higher if going purely by “players who need to step up.” Last year, the NU secondary managed to make things work just well enough with Hartage as the top option, despite him battling injuries throughout the year. Even an injured Hartage was a quality cornerback, and without him, Williams and Newsome are the most likely candidates to assume the starting corner spots.

Lucio Vainesman (NR/NR)

It goes without saying how important the secondary as a unit will be for the Cats next season. Defense as a whole is Northwestern’s bread and butter, and a strong secondary is an indicator of overall defensive success. However, both of these corners remain unranked in my Top 10 rankings for one simple reason: good coaching and a good system will always outweigh individual talent, and we have seen Northwestern do more with less for awhile.

Losing a star corner like Montre Hartage is a blessing and a curse simultaneously. Hartage was undoubtedly the best corner on the team and one of the best defensive backs in the conference. However, later in the season it became apparent that the defense became a little too reliant on him and moved away from some of its earlier zone schemes that made the bend-don’t-break style effective. The burden on Hartage was apparent in the Big Ten Championship when Haskins repeatedly targeted him and his battered lower-body against some of the best receivers in the country with limited help from the safeties.

With Hartage gone, a greater burden falls on the shoulders of Pat Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to properly scheme against opponents and find the right coverage matchups week in and week out. With both defensive backs having proven little as to date, the responsibility falls on the signal-callers and the veterans in the front-seven to fortify the defense.

As a conglomerate, the defensive backs are crucial for the success of the defense. However, as individuals, they don’t necessarily prove to be as impactful compared to other players on the roster, especially when Northwestern returns two of the four highest-graded safeties in the Big Ten anchoring the secondary, according to PFF College. With a star-studded front-seven full of difference makers, the Cats’ defensive backs can breathe easier; for the most part.