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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 7: JR Pace

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After a year and a half in the lineup, Pace will be one of the more senior members of next year’s secondary.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-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 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 seventh place is safety JR Pace.

Avery Zimmerman (Rank: 8)

Pace is an underrated reason for Northwestern’s success last year. After the departure of Godwin Igwebuike, the Georgia native was tasked with being the main cover safety in the NU secondary, and he delivered. Pace played in every game during the 2018 season and recorded 82 tackles, four interceptions and a crucial fumble recovery in the Holiday Bowl. He was also Pro Football Focus’ third-highest rated safety in the Big Ten (tied with fellow Wildcat Travis Whillock), and he’ll have a similar role anchoring Northwestern’s defense this coming year.

Jared McGee’s departure means that the backside of the defense will fully be Pace’s to lead. He has a unique ability to create plays in pass coverage and enter the box to help in short-yardage situations, which helps NU keep a balanced defense. In short, he’s a truly valuable asset that was overshadowed last year due to the success that Montre Hartage had on the outside.

The only reason that I don’t have Pace higher on my list is due to the importance that Trae Williams and Greg Newsome II will also have in the secondary. Hartage’s ability to limit opposing receivers on his own was a big factor in the unit’s success last year, and this year’s duo will play a massive role in dictating the success of the defense. If they can prove to be effective cornerbacks, Pace will have an opportunity to be a true playmaker behind them. If they aren’t able to replicate Hartage’s production, he’ll have to be much more conservative, limiting his talent.

Joe Weinberg (4)

My logic for ranking JR Pace in my Top 5 most important players is as follows:

1.) Turnovers are an important part of winning football games.

2.) JR Pace is a turnover machine.

3.) JR Pace, therefore, is one of the more important players on Northwestern’s football team.

Pace led the Northwestern defense last year with 5 total turnovers (4 INTs, 1 fumble recovery), all of which came in crucial game situations. Pace’s multi-turnover games against Nebraska and Utah were instrumental in the Wildcats completing two improbable second-half comeback victories.

Although a few of those turnovers were the result of the safety simply being in the right place at the right time (Adrian Martinez chucking a ball up to a wide-open Pace in the end zone after a botched snap), Pace showed a knack for reading quarterbacks and helping out in coverage over the top to make a few huge plays last year.

Take his first interception vs. Nebraska, for example.

Pace starts at the top half of the frame and tracks Martinez’ eyes the entire play — putting himself in perfect position to pick off what otherwise would’ve been a sure touchdown. These are the types of plays that change games, and the types of plays Northwestern is going to need in 2019 to support what could likely be below average play from what’s shaping up to be a thin group of NU cornerbacks.